Votes loom on bills designed to give GOP appointees control of elections

By: - March 25, 2021 3:00 am

Members of a board appointed by Republican state officials could take over supervision of county elections if the Legislature approves either of two voting overhauls. After the 2020 presidential election, Bibb County poll workers audited absentee ballots. Grant Blankenship/GPB

A bill that could give the GOP-controlled State Election Board the power to take over local election decisions could get a vote in the Georgia House Thursday, which could clear a path for political appointees to replace a county’s election managers.

Local election administrators are critical of the Republican-backed legislation that would grant the State Election Board the ability to micromanage decisions now left to counties if the board decides the local government is underperforming. 

Democrats, the ACLU of Georgia, Fair Fight, and a coalition of other voting rights groups argue that Republicans are trying to reshape local election oversight in their favor after former President Donald Trump blamed his Nov. 3 loss to President Joe Biden on baseless fraud accusations.

Supporters of Senate Bill 202 and House Bill 531 say the intervention plans are another step toward restoring confidence in an election system by placing more accountability on the people who run elections.

The sweeping House legislation also calls for taking away the elected secretary of state’s role as the State Election Board’s chair. Legislators would instead have the power to fill that post, giving members of the General Assembly the authority to appoint the majority of the state board.

Georgia lawmakers are considering legislation that would grant the State Election Board the authority to takeover local election operations. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (center) would lose his seat on the board, which would be controlled by political appointees. File/Georgia Recorder (2019)

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office took a high-profile stand in defense of Georgia’s election integrity after President Joe Biden won Georgia by 12,000 votes in November.

Senate Bill 202 could get a final vote by the full House chamber Thursday. It would overhaul early and absentee voting laws and restrict access to ballot drop boxes, and even criminalize handing out water and snacks to voters standing in line.

The House version could also come up for a vote before the 2021 legislative session adjourns March 31.

Paulding County Election Supervisor Deidre Holden said that while state lawmakers probably have good intentions, granting the General Assembly and State Election Board too much authority would likely lead to tensions.

She prefers that the state create a new election support committee that could work alongside local officials after finding solid evidence of a problem.

“This is no place for politics to be involved,” Holden said. “This is no place for he-said, she-said evidence. After all, we are dealing with individuals’ jobs and professional reputations.”

State intervention in local elections would play out similarly to when struggling school systems are assisted until they can get back on track, said Rep. Barry Fleming, a Harlem Republican and author of HB 531. State school takeovers are unpopular in Georgia, soundly rejected at the ballot box in a 2016 referendum. 

“Our hope is if the Legislature approves a method, it will actually be an incentive to the counties, and it’s only a handful, to get their acts together so that they don’t give all of the wrong impression we saw in this last election,” said Fleming, who also chairs the House Special Committee on Election Integrity. “This requires due process; it cannot happen overnight. There have to be recommendations from elected officials or the state board of elections even to begin a review and the county has a chance to be heard.”

But Rep. Kim Alexander, a Hiram Democrat, said some GOP officials are looking for other avenues to potentially undermine future elections after not getting the results they wanted last year.

Raffensperger oversaw several recounts and audits confirming the results of the presidential election despite pressure from Trump to find enough votes to reverse the outcome. And GOP Gov. Brian Kemp refused to call for a special legislative session to investigate the election results despite calls for him to do so from some within his party.

“The Georgia GOP is trying to give themselves the power to oversee and influence the outcomes of their own elections and silence the voice of millions of Black, brown and (Asian) voters,” Alexander said.

Fulton County is known for its Election Day snafus and late-arriving results. The county rebounded from national attention focused on  hours-long waits in last spring’s primary to a smoother voting process in the Nov. 3 general election and in January’s twin Senate runoffs. 

But conspiracy theories grew among Trump supporters post-Election Day as Fulton staff counted a record number of absentee ballots. In December, state lawmakers hosted Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who spun conspiracy theories including the claim that Fulton poll workers came up with extra votes for Biden. 

Recently, Fulton Election Director Richard Barron was fired by the county’s election board only to be overruled by the Fulton County Commission.

As Raffensperger’s office audited the 2020 presidential election ballots, problems cropped up in other parts of the state, including the conservative-leaning Floyd County, where county commissioners fired its election director last year after 2,600 missing votes were discovered. 

Members of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia have object to the bill’s process of replacing local election administrators. 

But association Deputy Legislative Director Todd Edwards said the newest version of the legislation has better safeguards in place, such as allowing county leaders to also initiate a performance hearing. 

However, counties could still get stuck with the cost to pay for two superintendents simultaneously if the state intervenes, he said.

Fair Fight Senior Advisor Lauren Groh-Wargo said there could be dire consequences if the Legislature approves the takeover power shift.

“It will make what we all lived through in 2020, child’s play,” she said. “Donald Trump won’t have to strong-arm our election administrators. The most radical fringe of the Republican Party in the state legislature will be able to wipe out boards of elections or challenge voters because they don’t have the right name according to them.”

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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