Faulty state records could disqualify Democratic candidate in Georgia

James Williams qualified weeks ago as the only challenger to a Republican incumbent state lawmaker in South Georgia, one of a host of Democrats trying to tilt the balance at the state Legislature in this statewide election year.

But now the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office — which keeps the official records used by political parties to qualify candidates — says its records were wrong about which district Williams lives in, likely disqualifying him from the race.

The mix-up apparently happened four years ago when the state last redrew district lines in a statewide process known as redistricting, including House District 151, where Williams planned to run. The district includes part of Dougherty County as well as all of Calhoun, Clay, Early, Quitman, Randolph, Stewart, Terrell and Webster counties.

State officials this week blamed local officials for the problem.

“During re-districting, Dougherty County elections officials incorrectly designated Mr. Williams as living in House District 151,” Georgia Secretary of State spokeswoman Candice Broce said in an email. “Mr. Williams lives in House District 154. When alerted to their error, county officials corrected their mistake.”

But it means Williams has been unknowingly voting in House District 151 for the past four years. And it has angered Democrats, who say Williams qualified in good faith to run against state Rep. Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert, based on faulty state records.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office stressed Tuesday that it was the faulty records submitted to the state by Dougherty County that could cause Williams’ disqualification.

But Georgia Democratic Party Chairman DuBose Porter said Kemp is the “chief elections officer in the state,” and that “Georgia Code places the responsibility for maintaining the voter file on the secretary of state.”

“Blaming local elections officials for this is an admission that he is not performing his duties as required by law,” Porter said.

Democratic Party officials want Kemp, a Republican, to reopen qualifying for the seat — which may allow them a chance to field another candidate. They have also been in touch with the state Attorney General’s Office, which they said has informed them Kemp’s office will not agree to allowing Williams to run in House District 151, nor will it reopen qualifying.

Broce said Tuesday that the office could not reopen qualifying in this scenario because state law did not give it the discretion to do so.

That decision comes as the Georgia Republican Party later this week will reopen qualifying for two state House seats — both involving incumbents who withdrew their candidacies after signing up for re-election.

Instead, in Williams’ case, a formal hearing has been scheduled for April 13 at the Office of State Administrative Hearings after Greene filed a challenge on March 14 to Williams’ residency in House District 151.