Bipartisan local elections oversight endangered by Georgia bills

SAVANNAH, GA - NOVEMBER 14, 2020: Officials sort ballots during an audit at the Chatham County Board of Elections Annex building in Savannah, Ga. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for the AJC

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for the AJC

SAVANNAH, GA - NOVEMBER 14, 2020: Officials sort ballots during an audit at the Chatham County Board of Elections Annex building in Savannah, Ga. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

With a quick vote last week, the Georgia General Assembly passed the first bill to break up a county’s volunteer, bipartisan elections board.

It’s the beginning of legislation to remove equal political representation over local election offices across Georgia.

Other county election boards could soon face the same fate as Morgan County’s, where replacement election board members would instead be chosen by the mostly Republican County Commission.

Bills to change local elections management are being debated along with sweeping legislation to require ID for absentee voting, restrict drop boxes and limit weekend early voting in Georgia. These measures follow a two-month effort by Donald Trump and his Republican supporters to overturn the presidential election results despite state officials saying there was no evidence of widespread fraud.

So far, legislators from Morgan and at least two more counties are pursuing the removal of bipartisan election boards, whose members were appointed by each party with a nonpartisan chairperson to break ties. Lawmakers are also considering similar changes in metro Atlanta and other counties, creating the possibility of politicized local elections oversight.

In Morgan County, one of the current board members is Helen Butler, executive director for the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, an organization founded by civil rights leader Joseph Lowery, who died last year. Under House Bill 162, Butler would be removed.

“It’s taking control, and it doesn’t do anything to improve anything,” Butler said. “It takes away the voices of a lot of people in the county from having input in how elections are run.”

The effort to replace election boards is motivated by both politics and the law after the contentious presidential election.

County commissioners and state legislators say they should have a role in appointing county election officials. They’re backed up by a decision by the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled in 2018 that private organizations, such as political parties, couldn’t appoint public officials to a government decision-making body, the DeKalb County Board of Ethics.

Morgan County Commissioner Ben Riden, a Republican, said the elections board will function better if there’s less dissent among members appointed by him and his peers on the Commission, made up of four Republicans and one Democrat.

“The election board was fairly dysfunctional,” Riden said. “It was very polarized. Our whole purpose is to appoint a nonpartisan board and not look at people as a political affiliation so they can work together.”

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dave Belton, a Republican from Buckhead, declined to comment. The legislation passed despite opposition from House Democrats before clearing the state Senate. It’s now awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature or veto.

Altering the makeup of county election boards could have consequences for their voters. Election boards decide on polling place locations, election certifications, drop box availability, weekend hours during early voting and challenges to voters’ eligibility.

“Shifting the composition of the boards and putting them solely in the power of the county commissions, who tend to be controlled by one party, decreases the oversight and responsiveness of the boards,” said Poy Winichakul, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Groups that are historically disenfranchised — Black voters, poor voters, the elderly — are going to be the ones who are not heard.”

Election boards in Troup and Carroll counties might also be replaced this year.

The Troup County Commission approved an ordinance to take over the board’s appointment power, and the state House passed House Bill 456 on Tuesday, giving the Carroll County Commission authority to add two election board members and choose future board members after current terms expire.

State Rep. J Collins, a Republican from Villa Rica, said he didn’t see the change as political.

“Because of the growth we’ve experienced in Carroll County, five members would be more reflective of the populace,” Collins said.

Legislation hasn’t yet been introduced to change election boards in metro Atlanta, where Democrats often control county commissions, but legislators are discussing bills for new election boards in Cobb and Gwinnett counties.

In Gwinnett, that kind of bill would replace elections board Chairwoman Alice O’Lenick, who said at a Republican Party meeting that lawmakers need to change election laws for absentee voting and drop boxes “so that we at least have a shot at winning.”

State Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat from Atlanta, said attempts to make election boards more one-sided will further undermine public confidence in elections.

“It’s a troubling trend. People already are questioning the legitimacy of elections,” Jordan said. “It’s partisan. It comes from all the untruths and misstatements of the election.”