A sign, “Wait here to vote,” is shown as a voter walks toward voting booths during the Georgia runoff election at the North Fulton Government Service Center Tuesday, July 24, 2018, in Sandy Springs, Ga. There have been an increase in election challenges in Fulton County in 2019. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC) AJC FILE PHOTO
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

Four Fulton County election challenges represent an uptick in 2019

Mike Herring, an East Point write-in candidate for city council, thought votes attributed to a disqualified candidate should be considered when asking whether the winner of a November council race actually got a majority.

Pamela Gay, a College Park mayoral candidate, thought there were irregularities with absentee ballots and questioned whether one of her competitors in the November race really lived in the city.

Keisha Carey, who ran for an Atlanta school board seat in September, said stolen election machines and a precinct that had no voters on election day called final vote tallies into question.

And Greg Clay, who in March fell three votes short of making a runoff for an Atlanta city council seat, said he had concerns about the counting of absentee ballots.

All four candidates contested the results of their respective elections, the most complaints Fulton County has seen in at least six years.

In 2017, current Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts contested his election loss to then-chairman John Eaves, but there have otherwise been no challenges to election results since 2013, said Richard Barron, Fulton’s director of registration and elections.

“That is a significant increase,” Barron said of the four challenges filed in 2019. “I think it shows a lack of trust in the results of the system.”

The candidates agreed.

“I would like to trust the election process,” Carey said, before explaining that the irregularities she mentioned in her filing prevented her from doing so.

Increase in legal challenges

Clay said he had hoped after following his challenge that he would learn that the election process was “air tight,” but that that was not the case.

Herring, the East Point write-in candidate who lost his race after a third candidate, Davion Lewis, was deemed ineligible, said an election can’t be fair if there’s only one name on the ballot. Then, he said, it’s “a coronation.” Herring said the inconsistencies in the race caused him to question the final outcome.

“If there’s a fair election and I don’t come out on top, fine,” said Herring, implying that he did not think the November race was a fair one.

Gay, who finished third in a six-person mayor’s race that goes to a runoff Tuesday, did not respond to requests for comment about her election challenge.

A spokesperson for the Secretary of State said the office does not track the number of election challenges across the state, so it was impossible to tell if Fulton’s increase was an anomaly statewide.

But Bryan Tyson, an attorney who specializes in election law, said he has seen an increase in legal challenges to elections since 2000, when the Bush v. Gore presidential race was sent to the Supreme Court.

“Before 2000, there was much more hesitancy about challenging elections in courts,” Tyson said.

Tyson doesn’t see a problem with those challenges, which he said ultimately help restore trust in the system and allow for the correction of errors. He represented Chris Erwin, a north Georgia Democrat who beginning last May ran three times for a Georgia House seat against Dan Gasaway, R-Homer, when a judge repeatedly ordered new elections because of mapping mistakes and other errors. Gasaway was ultimately victorious.

“Historically, they have not succeeded,” Tyson said of election challenges. “The bar is so high.”

That was the case earlier this year, when the state Supreme Court rejected a request to reconsider the outcome of the lieutenant governor’s race, despite inexplicably low vote totals.

Clay lost his challenge, but the other three are still in process, and those candidates hope for better results. Carey, who ran for school board in Atlanta, said she wants her challenge to result in a new election. She still might not be victorious, she said, but she would like “a fairer outcome.”

“It’s not about being a sore loser, it’s about helping the elections going forward,” Carey said. “If there’s no evidence of irregularities, of course there’s nothing to challenge.”

Tyson noted that it isn’t just a legal filing that can cast election results into doubt. When gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams refused to concede her 2018 race or Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin waited to concede his last month, supporters can believe the outcomes are in doubt. In 2017, Atlanta mayoral candidate Mary Norwood considered challenging her loss before deciding against it.

“I wouldn’t say an election contest alone signifies a lack of trust,” Tyson said. “But there has been an uptick in rhetoric.”

Heightened political IQ

That rhetoric has led to more awareness of close races and voting issues said Clay, the Atlanta city council candidate. He said with so many people paying more attention to politics nationally, it’s natural that there would be questions when local races are close, as his was.

“Everyone’s political IQ and temperament is really, really heightened right now,” he said. “I don’t even know if you do a poll how many citizens will say they really, really trust this process.”

Barron said he’s concerned that candidates are continuing to question election outcomes, especially in elections — like those four in Fulton County — that had low voter turnout. He said it’s better for candidates to inspire voters on the front end than challenge results on the back end.

“It undermines the whole system,” Barron said. “Anyone can throw unfounded allegations against the wall. Over time, it foments distrust.”

The trend is “damaging,” Barron said.

“We have to have people willing to accept the fact that they’ve lost,” he said.

Herring, who is representing himself, said he isn’t going to back down.

“We’re going to go as far as we have to go with this court process,” he said, “and that’s a fact.”

Staff writer Ben Brasch contributed to this story.

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