Georgia bill clears Senate that would let state take over local election boards

Some voters waited 2-3 hours at the Park Tavern polling place in Atlanta to cast ballots in June's primary. The Georgia Senate on Wednesday approved Senate Bill 89, which would allow the State Election Board to establish criteria for “low-performing” election offices and, if they don’t improve, to replace the local officials with new election superintendents indefinitely. Supporters of SB 89 said the bill would mean more support for local election officials, as well as accountability for those — such as Fulton County — that have repeatedly had election problems. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
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Some voters waited 2-3 hours at the Park Tavern polling place in Atlanta to cast ballots in June's primary. The Georgia Senate on Wednesday approved Senate Bill 89, which would allow the State Election Board to establish criteria for “low-performing” election offices and, if they don’t improve, to replace the local officials with new election superintendents indefinitely. Supporters of SB 89 said the bill would mean more support for local election officials, as well as accountability for those — such as Fulton County — that have repeatedly had election problems. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The Georgia Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would allow the state to take over local election offices that fail to meet standards.

Senate Bill 89 would allow the State Election Board to establish criteria for “low-performing” election offices and, if they don’t improve, to replace the local officials with new election superintendents indefinitely.

Supporters said the bill would mean more support for local election officials, as well as accountability for those — such as Fulton County — that have repeatedly had election problems.

“The state has come down on Fulton County numerous times, but we still see systemic problems,” said Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell.

Critics said the state already has the authority to investigate and hold local officials accountable. They say the proposal would usurp local control of elections guaranteed in the Georgia Constitution.

“What this bill is really trying to get to is removing (local) election superintendents,” said Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta.

The measure passed by a vote of 35-18.

SB 89 is one of a slew of bills that seek to reshape voting in Georgia in the wake of a 2020 election that confirmed Georgia’s status as a national partisan battleground. The state helped deliver the presidency to Democrat Joe Biden and flipped control of the U.S. Senate.

Republicans in the General Assembly have since proposed doing away with no-excuse absentee voting, limiting early in-person voting and imposing other limits they say would give voters confidence in the integrity of elections. Democrats say Republicans are trying to hold on to power in a changing political landscape by limiting the number of people who vote.

Under current law, Georgia elections are run by officials in each of its 159 counties. In most counties, elections are overseen by bipartisan election boards, although elections in some are run by probate judges.

The State Election Board — chaired by the secretary of state — establishes rules for the conduct of elections and has the authority to investigate and punish violations.

Under SB 89, the state board would establish criteria for “low-performing” local offices based on previous election law violations, voter “inconvenience” due to poor administration, departure from best practices and other criteria.

If low-performing jurisdictions failed to improve, the state board could suspend the local board or probate judge and appoint one or more people to replace them. The bill would allow the suspended local officials to seek reinstatement, but it does not put a time limit on the suspensions. That would be up to the State Election Board.

The bill also would create an “elections assistance officer” in the secretary of state’s office. The officer would be responsible for training poll workers and providing other assistance to local election officials.

Some Senate Democrats said the secretary of state and the state board already have the authority to hold local election officials accountable.

“The law is pretty strong as it is,” said Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta.

Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, the bill’s sponsor, said the current system of enforcement leaves it to local authorities to decide whether they want to take steps to improve.

“We’re asking a low-performing board to discipline themselves,” Miller said.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.