X

Democrats want ‘terrible’ process changed after speedy vote on Lewis’ seat

FILE -- Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) makes at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Georgia Democrats were poised on Monday, July 20, 2020, to pick a replacement for Lewis on the November ballot, reaching a decision less than 72 hours after the civil rights leader turned 17-term congressman died. (Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times)
FILE -- Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) makes at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Georgia Democrats were poised on Monday, July 20, 2020, to pick a replacement for Lewis on the November ballot, reaching a decision less than 72 hours after the civil rights leader turned 17-term congressman died. (Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times)

Georgia Democrats had to figure out who replaces U.S. Rep. John Lewis on the November ballot before the arrangements for his funeral were even finalized.

Now some lawmakers want to make sure that no political party has to pull off a similar scramble if a sitting U.S. House member dies or leaves office.

Because Lewis died after he won the primary but before the November election, state law requires party leaders to decide by 4 p.m. the next business day after his death to submit a replacement on the November ballot or leave the spot empty.

That meant grieving Democrats had to quickly hash out an online application process and hold a vote of party insiders to select state Sen. Nikema Williams to take the spot. Had he died Thursday instead of Friday, they’d have had only hours to make that decision rather than days.

During Monday’s Zoom call, there was almost as much discussion about the process as the five finalists for the seat. A string of activists and elected officials called for an overhaul of the law.

“We know this process is flawed and it needs extra work,” said state Sen. Gloria Butler, one of the top Democrats in the Georgia Senate. She added that Democrats will push for changes to the statute when the legislative session resumes in January.

The focus of the frustration isn’t just on the hasty timeline. The law said the state Democratic Party’s executive committee had until 4 p.m. Monday to decide whether to replace Lewis on the ballot, but the law doesn’t explicitly specify that a replacement be named by that deadline.

Democrats wanted to leave nothing to chance, wary of a legal challenge that could block them from replacing Lewis’ name if they didn’t submit a new candidate by the deadline. A rewrite of the legislation could offer more clarity.

State Republican legislative leaders closely monitored the vote but issued no comment about whether they will back an overhaul. Democrats note that Republicans, too, could be forced into a crisis.

“After sitting through this executive session, it is even more clear that we need to immediately change the law so that the voters are the ones empowered to vote for their representative,” said state Rep. Bee Nguyen, adding: “What a terrible process.”

About the Author

ajc.com