New chair leading DeKalb elections board through touchy time

08/04/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — Dele Lowman Smith, Chair of the DeKalb County Elections Board, stands for a portrait at the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Decatur, Wednesday, August 4, 2021.  (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Combined ShapeCaption
08/04/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — Dele Lowman Smith, Chair of the DeKalb County Elections Board, stands for a portrait at the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Decatur, Wednesday, August 4, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Dele Lowman Smith knows there’s a lot of work to do and a lot of people watching how it’s done — waiting to pounce on any slip-up.

Honestly, though? That’s OK, she says. The new chairwoman of the DeKalb County elections board relishes tricky situations and complex challenges. It’s what she does.

“It’s a big lift,” Lowman Smith said this week. “But I would not be excited about this if it were not.”

Last month, Lowman Smith started her second term on DeKalb’s elections board — and her first as its leader. She was selected by her peers to fill the seat that Samuel Tillman occupied for the better part of a quarter century.

Lowman Smith and others say the transition will bring fresh air and a healthier dynamic to both the board and the county elections office that it oversees.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Georgia’s new elections law, Senate Bill 202, has counties across the state scrambling to reconfigure their operations. Portions of the law that impose new voter ID requirements; limit the use of absentee ballot drop boxes; restrict the use of outside funding; and mandate quicker vote counts could have significant implications in DeKalb, specifically.

There’s also the specter of a takeover.

Perhaps the most controversial part of SB202 allows the State Election Board to replace local election boards after conducting performance reviews. GOP officials have already started that lengthy process in neighboring Fulton County.

While there would be more hurdles in DeKalb — a deep blue county with no Republican county commissioners or state legislators to request a review — the potential looms.

DeKalb has had its share of elections issues and internal turmoil in the past, and it’s often the second-favorite punching bag for GOP leaders. The chairwoman of the county’s Republican party has already expressed support for a takeover.

Lowman Smith, though, said she’s “mindful but not fearful” of the intense scrutiny she and her colleagues face. It won’t matter if the work gets done.

“You are cognizant that you are being watched, and not always for good reasons, so I think we always move forward with that in mind,” she said. “But we’re going to continue striving for excellence in the way that we execute elections, and we will follow the law for as long as it is the law.”

Combined ShapeCaption
08/04/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — Dele Lowman Smith, Chair of the DeKalb County Elections Board, stands for a portrait at the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Decatur, Wednesday, August 4, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

08/04/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — Dele Lowman Smith, Chair of the DeKalb County Elections Board, stands for a portrait at the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Decatur, Wednesday, August 4, 2021.  (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Combined ShapeCaption
08/04/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — Dele Lowman Smith, Chair of the DeKalb County Elections Board, stands for a portrait at the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Decatur, Wednesday, August 4, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

‘A new day’

Lowman Smith, 46, is native of Pittsburgh and a graduate of Florida A&M University. She has an extensive background in local government.

She worked for the state of Florida and Broward County before relocating to the Atlanta area in 2008, when she took a job as an assistant county manager in Fulton County — a gig that ultimately involved helping with logistics for a pair of high-profile presidential elections.

She currently works as an executive recruiter for local governments and lives in Stonecrest.

Lowman Smith first landed on DeKalb’s elections board two years ago, appointed by the local Democratic party after applying almost on a whim. Her experience and straightforward, no-nonsense approach have many colleagues and counterparts feeling optimistic about her time as the board’s chair.

“To borrow a very familiar DeKalb County phrase,” county commissioner Ted Terry said, “it’s a new day.”

Tillman, the longtime board chair, was also a retiree. He spent most of his days at the elections office off Memorial Drive, keeping an eye on everything from phone lines to landscaping. Other board members often accused him of overstepping boundaries and having an outsized influence on the department’s day-to-day operations.

Lowman Smith said that won’t be her; one of her first tasks will be unblurring the lines between the board and the department.

“We set the policy and the direction, and hold the director accountable to carry it out,” she said. “We’re not gonna be in there giving directions to employees.”

At the same time, Lowman Smith said taking a close look at the elections department’s processes is vital. It’s been “operating like a 20th century department even though we are well into the 21st century,” she said, and is too often reactionary instead of proactive.

Part of that is a product of finances. There have long been budgetary tensions between elections and the county, a sort of circular firing squad in which DeKalb administrators and commissioners would say they’re ready to provide any funding needed — and Tillman would say he didn’t get what he asked for.

Lowman Smith said other board members have traditionally been shut out of the budget process and there was “absolutely no transparency” from Tillman, who could not be reached for comment for this story.

“Frankly, the advocacy that the board should have engaged in to get the budget up to where it should be was not taking place,” she said. “There were not clear strategies, there were not clear projects and initiatives to say ‘this is why we need to increase the budget, this is what we’re going to use it for.’”

Lowman Smith said she wants to establish a budget committee for the board. It will be even more crucial for the elections office and the county to get funding moving forward.

Grants from private organizations, including a total of more than $9 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, helped DeKalb avoid disaster during November’s presidential election and January’s U.S. Senate runoffs. But accepting outside money is barred under SB202.

High-profile state and federal elections won’t take place until 2022. But come November, DeKalb has to run a countywide education tax vote and many municipal contests, including a portion of the closely watched election for mayor of Atlanta. About 10% of the city is in DeKalb.

That leaves little time for Lowman Smith, the rest of the board and the larger elections office to figure out how to best serve voters under the new voting law’s parameters.

“They would have to forbid us from ever doing anything ever again to keep us from coming up with ways to add value [for] the voters,” Lowman Smith said. “We’re just going to keep looking for those opportunities.”

New elections board member Nancy Jester — a Republican appointee and former county commissioner who previously served on an elections working group — called Lowman Smith both process-oriented and “vibrant.”

“She’s all about efficiency and transparency, and I think that will be very positive in a leadership position,” Jester said. “I think she’s gonna do a great job.”


DELE LOWMAN SMITH

Age: 46

Residence: Stonecrest

Political affiliation: Democrat

Experience: Long career in local government, including a stint as an assistant county manager in Fulton County. Currently an executive recruiter for GovHR. Served previous two-year term on DeKalb elections board.

Leadership style: “I see my responsibility as somebody in leadership as ensuring that the people who actually do the work have what they need. But then I expect you to meet the standards. I don’t really have much compromise on that.”