Officials, consultants say DeKalb elections has lots of work to do

C.K. Hoffler (center) wore a face shield as she voted at Cross Keys High School located at 1626 N Druid Hills Rd NE in DeKalb County where volunteers passed out water bottles to a crowd of 100 voters lined up for hours outside the building. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

C.K. Hoffler (center) wore a face shield as she voted at Cross Keys High School located at 1626 N Druid Hills Rd NE in DeKalb County where volunteers passed out water bottles to a crowd of 100 voters lined up for hours outside the building. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Coming off a pandemic-era primary marred by problems at the polls, DeKalb County's elections board is asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional funding to prepare for the August and November elections.

But several residents and elected officials said they worry elections officials will misuse that funding, and won’t fix the problems that plagued its elections last month and in 2018.

“We’re not a 20th-century operation. You have to move to a 21st-century model,” DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson said.

Discussions about the Board of Registration and Elections' budget comes on the heels of a 59-page report written by outside consultants that detailed seven major areas for improving the county's elections process.

“If we as commissioners continue down the same path,” Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson said, “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.”

Elections officials said they were supportive of most of the consultants’ recommendations and were already working on implementing some of the short-term items. Their mid-year budget proposal asks for an additional $600,000, money that would include funding to hire two new elections coordinators and to provide more technological equipment and services.

Their proposal also suggests using existing county workers as temporary elections staff to reduce costs.

But during a meeting last week between the Board of Commissioners and elections board leaders, commissioners expressed wariness that the proposed increase was not specific enough and said it didn’t include enough of the consultants’ suggestions.

The DeKalb Democrats also issued a call to action this week, urging supporters to contact officials and ask them to implement some of the recommendations.

“I don’t think that this list is complete,” Commissioner Jeff Rader said during the recent meeting.

At the time, elections board chairman Sam Tillman said the county would run better “if everybody would stay in their lane.”

A woman walks into the Dekalb County Voter Registration & Elections Office to vote in Decatur Saturday, May 30, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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This is not the first time tensions between the county commission and elections board have emerged.

The commissioners, who allocate funding but have no direct oversight of the elections office, began pushing for an audit following a tumultuous 2018 election that included, among other things, some 4,700 absentee ballot applications going missing.

After tense conversations and some pushback, the elections board agreed in January of this year to cooperate instead with a review by outside consultants. After the review was conducted this spring, a final report was issued a week before last month's primary election.

‘Too many moving parts’

The consultants suggested funding a new executive-level management team that would include a dedicated communications director, a full-time project manager to lead implementation of the state’s new voting system, a stakeholder engagement leader and a chief operating officer.

The consultants wrote that elections supervisor Erica Hamilton “was significantly involved in many day-to-day tasks,” which they called noble. However, they wrote, “there are simply too many moving parts to ask [Hamilton] to be the sole operations taskmaster for the organization while also managing policy and executive functions.”

That mirrored the complaints of several commissioners, who suggested the department does not have enough high-level staff to handle the demands of the upcoming election cycle.

Tillman, the elections board chairman, said that hiring a communications director and a project manager are already in the works. He admitted that Hamilton has a lot to handle — but said that’s not unique, especially now.

Georgia’s new statewide voting system, the coronavirus pandemic and previously unseen levels of absentee ballot requests make elections hard to orchestrate everywhere, Tillman said.

Much of the commissioners’ frustration, though, has focused on leadership.

“When you balance your entire operation on two people, then those two people are going to bear a great deal of responsibility on things turning out well. And they haven’t,” Rader said during last week’s meeting.

The commissioner added that the elections board’s four other members are also not intimately involved in the budget process.

“That is the very first participation that we have had,” elections board member Dele Lowman Smith said, referring to a budget subcommittee that recently began meeting. “We have not seen budget documents. …That has not been a part of the process up until now.”

Lowman Smith said she hopes to come to an agreement that gives the board members more agency.

Hamilton said last week that she is conducting an analysis of the June primary and considering what can be improved for August and November.

“This is not my first rodeo,” she said, adding that she has worked in elections for 15 years. “After every election I go back and look at issues.”

The consultants’ report recommended a dramatic overhaul of the vote-by-mail process as well, calling the elections office’s existing infrastructure underwhelming.

The county received just over 100,000 absentee ballots last month — a figure larger than advance and in-person election day voting combined.

Tillman said the plan is to acquire more ballot scanners and have more people working on the process.

The chairman said the board is also taking measures to make ensure voting equipment is set up earlier than 7 a.m. on Election Day, and is exploring plans to obtain additional ballot scanners. They plan on training “twice as many” poll workers as they expect to need and will have technicians on-hand to address election day problems, Tillman said.

Still, he said, “it’s difficult for us to determine, even at this time, exactly what we’re going to need.”