A voting sign outside the polling place at Hamilton Mill Christian Church in Buford, as seen on March 19, 2019. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Councilman makes push for Gwinnett to handle city elections

Gwinnett is the only major metro Atlanta county that doesn’t administer elections for the cities within its bounds.

That means voters in Gwinnett’s 13 cities may have to go one place to vote in county, state and federal races — and another to vote for the mayor, the city council or any other local matter.

If the elections coincide, that generally means voters have to hit two polling places in one day.

It’s been that way for a long time in Gwinnett, a county that’s now home to nearly 1 million people. But one local official wants it to change.

Peachtree Corners Councilman Eric Christ is pushing for the county elections board to strike a policy prohibiting Gwinnett from helping run municipal elections. From there, he hopes the county and local cities can develop a framework for future collaboration.

“For me,” Christ said, “it’s about voter participation.”

» Previous coverage: Gwinnett elections board members say they’re not racist

» Previous coverage: Dozens apply to run Gwinnett County elections

Christ was first elected to Peachtree Corners City Council during a 2016 special election that coincided with presidential primaries. He said he had trouble convincing folks to go to City Hall to vote in the local race in addition to their regular county polling place.

The same thing happened when Peachtree Corners held a local “brunch bill” referendum that coincided with November’s general election. Nearly 60 percent of Gwinnett voters cast ballots in the latter; only 4 percent of Peachtree Corners voters participated in the local referendum, Christ said.

Every county that surrounds Gwinnett — including big jurisdictions like Fulton and DeKalb and smaller ones like Walton and Barrow — provides elections services for all or some of its cities.

The councilman said the change he’s asking for wouldn’t mandate cities to allow Gwinnett to run their elections and those municipalities who chose to do so would pay the county for its services.

Longtime Gwinnett County elections supervisor Lynn Ledford said she didn’t have a strong opinion on the issue. She said fears about “complication of the ballot” and an already shorthanded staff have driven past resistance to the idea.

The elections board policy restricting Gwinnett’s assistance in municipal elections specifically references the county’s “limited resources.”

“While we are doing much, much better with the staffing, that’s still a consideration,” Ledford said.

She said making the switch would involve extra training for staffers and poll workers, as well as having to create extra “ballot styles” for countywide elections that also include municipal issues. Some voting precincts would likely have to be adjusted.

Christ made his case in front of the elections board in April. The board could consider the issue at its meeting later this month.

There seems to be some support for the changes.

“I just think we’re at the time now that if we’re ever gonna do it, we need to go ahead and bite the bullet and move forward with it,” elections board member Stephen Day said.

But not everyone is sold.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash, who has worked for the county since the 1970s, said the issue has surfaced from time to time over the years and been evaluated.

“The primary findings of earlier evaluations are that having the county handle city elections is more confusing to city voters and more costly for the cities,” Nash said.

Dave Emanuel is the mayor pro tem in Snellville, which held its own local election at the same time as March’s countywide transit referendum.

Emanuel said the county handling municipal elections would “remove confusion and inconvenience” for some voters, but said he was concerned about it putting an additional burden on the elections staff.

“The county has the information necessary to determine whether a voter is a city resident,” Emanuel said, “but with everything else the elections board has to handle, I don’t think it’s a good idea to add more work for poll workers.”

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