One Gwinnett official’s plea for clearer elections law — and civility

Channel 2's Tony Thomas reports.

Gwinnett County certified its election results on Thursday night, becoming the final Georgia county to do so following last week's mid-terms.

Certification — which also included adding close to 600 “new” ballots to the vote totals — came at the end of a three-hour meeting filled with tension and vitriol. During each of three lengthy recesses taken by the county’s bi-partisan elections board, the dozens of advocates and activists in the crowd found time to shout at, point fingers at and otherwise disparage their counterparts with beliefs on the other side of the spectrum.

Deputies were called in to keep the peace.

So at the end of the meeting, elections board chairman Stephen Day, a Democratic appointee, issued a five-minute monologue that not only called for clearer elections law — but for civility and cool-headedness.

Day’s speech was full of other revealing tidbits, too.

"Six weeks ago," Day started, "no one in Gwinnett County elections division, or for that matter the entire state of Georgia, knew that there was a wide range of ballot rejection rates in the counties across the state, currently or historically. The Gwinnett County elections division staff have been following the same set of procedures and following the Georgia election code, strictly as prescribed, for over a decade without ever being challenged regarding their process or given any written guidance on a new possible interpretation of the code. 

“There is no evidence of any sort that Gwinnett County elections division staff has ever acted in a way that was politically biased or engaged in malicious intentional actions … or suppressed votes. There have been intensive discussions and debate among elections board members about the issues brought before us, especially regarding absentee ballots.”

Gwinnett County became a target in the fight over voting rights in Georgia early on in the election season. Lawsuits and media reports highlighted Gwinnett's disproportionately high rate of rejection for mail-in absentee ballots — which are being cast in increasing frequency across the state.

Federal judges ultimately issued separate orders that resulted in Gwinnett counting hundreds of previously discarded absentee ballots that had signature mismatches or errors in birthdate information (the most common among the latter being including the current date rather than date of birth, or not filling the spot at all).

Day and other Gwinnett officials have repeatedly defended elections staff, saying they were addressing ballots under the county’s long-held interpretation of state election law.

The county has essentially argued that it did not know other counties did anything differently. Day said that’s a product of unclear statutes that, among other things, don’t specifically say which information requested on ballots is absolutely necessary and which errors and omissions should trigger rejection even if other information is provided correctly.

"There are systemic problems impacting absentee voting that need to be addressed at the state level with changes in state law," Day continued during his Thursday evening speech. "This is especially true regarding the specification of information necessary for voter identification. Clear and concise law needs to be passed that defines and delineates the information absolutely necessary for voter identification. And also information needs to be defined and delineated which is supportive information but is not a basis for ballot rejection if that information is incomplete or omitted. 

“Also, the concept of due process and curative actions for identification of errors of omission needs to be clearly specified as well.

“I hope the state legislature in the upcoming session will address these issues and aggressively provide law that allows for fair, equitable, clear, easy and consistent interpretation across all 159 counties and eliminates information trip-points and minor errors as a reason for absentee ballots and application rejections.”

Day was forced to play hall monitor during one recess at Thursday’s meeting, attempting to stop folks from arguing at each other and imploring them to “act like mature adults.”

"Yeah, we have disagreements from time to time," he said later, in his meeting-ending monologue. "But that doesn't mean that we can't find common ground on issues before us. The concepts of respect, comity, and the golden rule need to guide us if we're going to make democracy truly work. 

“So in closing, I thank my colleagues for their efforts and patience during this election season. I also want to thank and honor on behalf the board, division director Lynn Ledford and deputy director Kristi Royston, as well as all the full-time and part-time staff, and all the poll workers for their diligent, dedicated and passionate work. Everyone in the county owes you a debt of gratitude. The board also thanks all of the candidates for their support. 

“But most especially the voters, who made this democratic system, though imperfect, work as we aspire for the betterment of all.”

Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden can certify Georgia's statewide elections results after 5 p.m. Friday.