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Battleground: Ballot Box | Why Georgia elections boards are so important
County elections boards are one of the most important parts of the voting process in Georgia that you probably haven’t heard much about — except for ways things could go wrong.
Since 2020 they’ve been in the spotlight more and more, with elections boards being reconstituted, making changes to voting locations, hearing potential challenges to voter eligibility, certifying results and helping ensure local elections run smoothly.
This week, we visit the front lines of Georgia elections for a look at what goes on behind the scenes and how local elections decisions get made.
Under ordinary circumstances, the further up the election food chain you go, the less likely you are to know who the players are. But these are not ordinary times, and the person at the top, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, is not an ordinary chief election official.
Raffensperger has faced death threats, calls to resign from fellow Republican lawmakers and had an infamous call with former President Donald Trump in which he was asked to "find" votes to change the results.
You may know your local poll workers who are friends and neighbors who volunteer at your voting precinct, but sitting a step higher is Georgia’s 159 counties, where most of the legal and logistical elections-related stuff actually happens.
According to state law, county elections boards can be created that have powers and responsibilities of the “superintendent” in charge of running primaries and elections.
The superintendent — aka county elections board — does things like select polling places, train poll workers, conduct logic and accuracy testing of voting equipment, enforce voting rules and certify election results.
(Some counties have probate judges who also act as elections superintendents, making things even more confusing.)
Several elections boards have seen their memberships reconstituted in recent months.
One of them is Morgan County in eastern Georgia, where about 15,000 voters were served by seven polling places — until last week.
“Your proposal to align precincts which commissioning education districts makes sense on paper; it really does," one voter said at the election board meeting. "And it may be good for the long term. But it also means a large number of Morgan County voters will have a new place to vote on Election Day this year. And some of them will not know about the change until they arrive at their familiar polling place.’’
The elections board voted 3 to 1 to close the two smallest precincts and their little-used polling places at volunteer fire stations in the more rural parts of an already-rural county. It’s an overwhelmingly Republican county, overwhelmingly white county and, increasingly, a vote-before-Election Day county.
While the hired elections supervisor made the suggestion to consolidate polls after redistricting, the board had to actually vote on the measure. The one "no" vote was from board member Mary Kay Clyburn, a longtime poll worker, who worried about making sure voters would know of the changes.
"I'm a little concerned," she said. "I know we have done everything we can to get this information out, I don't know how else to get that information out. Some people just don't read, when they get their precinct card, I don't know if they're just gonna say 'I know where to vote!'"
Morgan County did have its board membership redone. It used to have a nonpartisan chair appointed by the county commission, and two members each picked by the local Democratic and Republican parties.
But in September of 2020, the commission began to take steps to reorganize the board because the partisan appointees bickered and fought so much that even a motion to adjourn had to have a tie-breaking vote.
Now, the Republican-led county commission appoints everyone. It includes two former poll workers, is not all Republican and fosters a much calmer atmosphere.
Then there’s Lincoln County, just a little further east of Morgan County, which, as you’ve heard on an earlier podcast, halted a plan to close all but one voting site after its board was reconstituted.
County officials say their original desire in tweaking the board was just to stagger terms, which usually include a nonpartisan member and members selected by political parties. But a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that found non-governmental bodies couldn’t directly pick members of government boards has meant recent laws dealing with elections boards also change how the boards are picked.
Lincoln County, for what it’s worth, is set to approve three voting sites after our reporting.
Elections boards — and elections offices — often have limited resources and while the decisions they make have great consequences for voters, changes are not taken lightly.
Last year, I talked with Hall County elections board chair Tom Smiley about the potential impact of new voting laws, and how the county was balancing polling places and resources after opening fewer early voting sites in the January 2021 runoffs:
“You have to try to operate within the confines of your resources — that every county has — and then you provide the best voter experience that you can," he said. "I mean, to me, that's what I try to do. You know, no one has unlimited resources. We don't have unlimited poll workers. We don't have unlimited locations.”
Georgia county elections boards have shuttered more than 10% of their polls since a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling no longer required federal oversight of election changes. Many of those are also in rural counties that don’t have a lot of money, manpower or voters.
So when considering all the decisions that local elections boards make, the pressure they’re under, new legislation and of course a big election season coming up, Tom Smiley the Hall County chair wants voters to understand elections officials take their nonpartisan mission seriously.
“We are people of integrity, our Democrats, our Republican members, members of our staff," he said. "We are people of integrity. We are people who are honest. We want to do the right thing.”
But some actions taken by local election boards have caused concerns.
In March of 2020, Athens-Clarke County faced steep fines and penalties when its elections board voted to ditch new touchscreen voting machines in favor of hand-marked paper ballots, violating a state law that requires every county to use the same system.
The change was approved 3-2 by a Democratic-controlled board over objections by the hired elections supervisor and the county attorney.
A recent report in the Daily Beast highlighted how the new chair of the Spalding County elections board purportedly believes in QAnon conspiracy theories and has made multiple false and wild claims about election results.
It’s also the only election board rewrite done recently that did not get rid of partisan appointments to the board — instead having the fifth person appointed by county judges.
“I will never ever back down from the fight with these conspiracy theorists who pushed the big lie in a disgraceful attempt to take away the voices of Fulton County voters,” Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said.
The review, initiated by Republican lawmakers who have used past problems with elections in Fulton as a way to insinuate fraud in the 2020 election, could, in theory, result in the state election board appointing a temporary superintendent to replace the five-member election board.
A board that, remember, can select polling places, hear voting challenges and certify election results.
“I have said from the beginning 'If you have any evidence of wrongdoing, malfeasance — bring it to me,'" Pitts said. "'Otherwise put up or shut up,' and you'll remember that commercial long ago, 'Where's the beef?' Nobody has brought the beef to me yet."
The three-person panel selected by the State Election Board includes a bipartisan group: Gwinnett County Democratic elections board member Stephen Day, Catoosa County elections board chairman Ricky Kittle and Secretary of State general counsel Ryan Germany.
Democratic State Election Board member Sara Tindal Ghazal said in a meeting she hoped the panel takes its job seriously and would focus on how Fulton’s board could move forward.
"The narrative driving this pressure has been influenced by disinformation surrounding the November 2020 election, but the fact remains that Fulton County voters have reported numerous problems for far longer than November 2020, particularly surrounding registration and absentee ballots," she said. "So I urge Fulton County to view this performance review board as an opportunity to have fresh eyes on their systems and their procedures and identify areas of improvement."
Republican State Election Board member Matt Mashburn agreed.
"This is an invitation to Fulton, that it would be very nice for the board to be able to report — when the report comes out — that this was a problem, but in the meantime we've seen this be cured, and this be fixed," he said. "So I encourage folks to keep trying to improve and not just throw up their hands and say 'Well it's all in the hands of the board, now!'"
The most likely result of the review will be a report that will outline failures, fixes and a plan to tackle the crucial 2022 election cycle to avoid repeat issues.
Over the last several years I’ve spoken to countless local elections board members and supervisors, and they share some common sentiments: More people should get involved with their local elections office, whether it’s volunteering as a poll worker or showing up to board meetings if they’re able. They should ask questions about things that don’t make sense, and share with others the things that do.
And in this crucial time for elections in Georgia, these election workers say voters should trust in the state’s election system — and the people who run it.
Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer is Jess Mador; our editor is Wayne Drash. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger, who also wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.