Confusing Georgia law at heart of debate over Lewis’ successor

11/14/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia State Senator Nikema Williams speaks during a press conference at the Capitol Building in Atlanta, Wednesday, November 14, 2018. Sen. Williams said she spent more than 4 hours in the Fulton County Jail after being arrested during a protest in the Capitol rotunda Wednesday afternoon.  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
11/14/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia State Senator Nikema Williams speaks during a press conference at the Capitol Building in Atlanta, Wednesday, November 14, 2018. Sen. Williams said she spent more than 4 hours in the Fulton County Jail after being arrested during a protest in the Capitol rotunda Wednesday afternoon. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Records show conflicting interpretation of rules

Shortly after U.S. Rep. John Lewis died, grieving Democrats were faced with two difficult choices: tap a replacement for the late civil rights icon on the ballot within days or slow the process and risk a legal challenge.

Democratic insiders decided to hold a swift vote, electing party Chairwoman Nikema Williams to fill Lewis’ place on the ballot in the 5th Congressional District. The decision upset some fellow Democrats and brought backlash from Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who accused them of short-circuiting the process.

Records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show the root of the clash was confusion and disagreement over the obscure state law invoked after Lewis’ July 17 death that guides how officials should replace a candidate who died after winning the party primary.

The law gives the party’s executive committee until 4 p.m. the next business day to decide whether to submit a replacement name on the ballot, but it doesn’t explicitly spell out that a substitute name is needed by that deadline.

In a text message the morning after Lewis’ death, Jordan Fuchs, a top aide to Raffensperger, told Democratic officials they had some wiggle room.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has been critical of the state Democratic Party's swiftness in picking state Sen. Nikema Williams to take the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis' spot on the ballot in November for the 5th Congressional District. “For the first time in U.S. history, a committee of establishment partisans decided an entire congressional election with a mere 44 political insiders,” Raffensperger said. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has been critical of the state Democratic Party's swiftness in picking state Sen. Nikema Williams to take the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis' spot on the ballot in November for the 5th Congressional District. “For the first time in U.S. history, a committee of establishment partisans decided an entire congressional election with a mere 44 political insiders,” Raffensperger said. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

The message, sent to party Executive Director Scott Hogan, said Democrats would have to inform the secretary of state’s office whether they intend to appoint a replacement by 4:30 p.m. July 20 and then “they need to let us know who the replacement will be shortly thereafter.”

A few hours later, Democratic Party attorney Sachin Varghese told Raffensperger’s legal counsel, Ryan Germany, that his interpretation of the statute was different. He believed, he wrote, that the law required a replacement nominee by the deadline.

“I understand that you will try to identify any historical precedent on this and also consult with the Attorney General’s office regarding the same,” Varghese wrote. “I appreciate you doing so and look forward to receiving any additional information you may be able to offer on this point.”

The records show no written response from Germany or any other deputies.

‘A scramble'

Facing a time crunch, Democrats arranged a virtual teleconference July 20 — the Monday after Lewis’ death — to pick Williams to fill his spot on the ballot. Williams, a state senator, is seen as a shoo-in to win a full term to represent the heavily Democratic district.

(Separately, seven candidates qualified last week for the Sept. 29 special election to fill the remainder of Lewis’ term, which expires in January.)

Democratic officials weren’t worried so much about an objection from Raffensperger, though they have frequently clashed with him over voting rights issues. They were concerned about a legal challenge from Republicans, including GOP nominee Angela Stanton-King, that could have disqualified their selection.

“That’s the biggest concern — that seat could be lost on a technicality,” Ted Terry, the party’s vice chairman, said before the vote. “That’s why you’re seeing a scramble.”

Though Williams received broad support from top party leaders, some rank-and-file Democrats criticized the process and urged her to step down to clear the way for an open vote. They say the speedy nomination undermines the legacy of Lewis, a voting rights icon.

Some rank-and-file Democrats have criticized the speedy process used to replace the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, shown with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, saying it undermines the legacy of Lewis, a voting rights icon. BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Some rank-and-file Democrats have criticized the speedy process used to replace the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, shown with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, saying it undermines the legacy of Lewis, a voting rights icon. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

“If what the Democratic Party is hiding behind is a perceived loophole, they are no better than the Republicans in their own voter suppression tactics,” said Maya Dillard Smith, an unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate who is organizing opposition to Williams.

Others, too, lamented the process but said they had little choice but to commit to it. Several legislators have promised to overhaul the law next year to make sure that no political party has to pull off a similar dash if a nominee dies or resigns.

It’s also triggered a new back-and-forth between Democrats and Raffensperger, who accused Democrats of depriving voters of a “fair fight” and an “open Democratic process” with the accelerated vote.

“For the first time in U.S. history, a committee of establishment partisans decided an entire congressional election with a mere 44 political insiders,” Raffensperger said.

Varghese, the Democratic Party attorney, saw it a different way. He said Raffensperger’s office made clear that the “best course” was to name a nominee by the deadline — and that he provided no legal authority to support an alternative.

“Our legal and moral duty to the voters of the 5th District was to ensure a Democratic nominee on the ballot in November,” he said. “Democrats have done our job — now we need the secretary of state to do his.”

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