Last spring, the new Georgia voter law caused a stir around the country. In recent months and weeks, the controversy has been reignited with unpopular moves by Republicans in several counties.
American Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group, notes that “Republican state legislators passed county-specific bills to create a new five-member election board in Troup County, to ‘reconstitute and reestablish’ the board of Stephens County, and to expand the Carroll County board from three to five members.” All three bills were signed into law by Gov. Kemp.
Additionally, the local election board in Lincoln County voted to consolidate the county’s current precincts into only one polling place that would serve the entire county. Georgia Public Broadcasting reports that, while Lincoln County’s Board of Elections was among those “reconstituted” by the legislature, the makeup of the board remains three Republicans and two Democrats, all of whom favor the consolidation plan.
It isn’t clear whether the changes are directly linked to SB 202, the overhaul of Georgia’s election laws that passed, but there were specific bills that addressed the changes in each county. Section 12 of SB 202 does allow the state to conduct “a performance review” which may be “grounds for dismissal.” This does not seem to have been done in any of the county overhauls.
The law also allows the State Board of Elections to replace county or municipal superintendents and boards of registrars in a maximum of four counties at one time. The laws replacing county election boards do not relate to this provision, however, since the laws were passed by the General Assembly rather than being action taken by the state board. GPB has a detailed explanation of that process.
What is clear is that the bills to “reform” the county election boards followed quickly on the passage of SB 202, which became law in March 2021. The Spalding County and Stephens County laws were passed in April 2021. The Lincoln County and Troup County laws were passed in May.
The more I dig, the more this seems to be happening across the state. Last June, 11 Alive listed nine Georgia counties where bills had passed to reorganize county election boards. These counties were Carroll, Jackson, Lincoln, Morgan, Pickens, Pulaski, Spalding, Stephens, and Troup.
The report notes that the bills were considered local in nature and thus received little or no debate in the General Assembly. Sponsors of the bills did not respond to requests for comment but the report noted that they had justified the changes by saying that the new laws eliminated “dysfunction” and “partisan infighting.”
Of course, one way to eliminate partisan infighting is to eliminate the other party. The reformation in Spalding County, a Republican county south of Atlanta, seemed to proceed along those lines per a Reuters report from December 2021. Under the new law, the county’s five-member election board, which had held a majority of three Democrats, was replaced by a majority of three Republicans, including a new chairman that has endorsed Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen. The Guardian also notes that one of the new board’s first actions was to cancel Sunday voting, which is optional under SB 202.
There is a problem with the narrative that these changes are a subterfuge aimed at keeping Georgia red, however. I’m familiar with many of the counties that are being affected by the bills and have even lived in one (although not currently). These are rural, conservative counties where Republicans would have a majority even without engaging in shenanigans.
Spalding County is one of affected counties that I’m least familiar with, but I have to confess that I was surprised to find that a Republican county had an elections board with a Democratic majority prior to the change. I haven’t been able to determine how this situation developed, but the new law comprises the board of appointments by the chairperson of the county executive committee with two seats going to members of each party. A fifth member is appointed by “the vote of a majority of the judges” of the county superior court.
The Morgan County Citizen reported the county commissioners of the county located south of Athens petitioned the General Assembly for the authority to appoint board members. The old system gave each party two appointments and the county commission named the fifth member. The change was opposed by the commission’s lone Democrat. A subsequent Citizen article that listed the new members of the board did not list their party affiliation but did note that the Democrat who had opposed the change “urged the public to move forward with the new system.”
On the surface at least, there seems to be partisan agreement in at least some of the cases. For example, in Troup County, the LaGrange Daily News reports that the changes were unanimous, even supported by the county commission’s lone Democrat.
That was not the case in moutainous Pickens County, where SmokeSignalNews reported that board member Will Bell was told by county Republicans, “We’ve got the long knives out for you.”
I could not find news reports of the shakeups in every affected county, but several referenced a 2019 case in which the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that non-elected groups like political parties could not appoint members to government boards. In practice, that does not mean that board members can’t be partisan, but only that parties cannot appoint board members directly. In many counties, the response has been to add a layer to the process, such as the Spalding County system in which county officials appoint members of each party.
Emails obtained by American Oversight show that county election officials were opposed to the changes and were not also given advance notice. In some cases, they also questioned the legality of their dismissals.
In addition to all these changes to local election boards, the State Election Board is conducting a performance review of Fulton County, a heavily Democratic county in the heart of metro Atlanta. The Atlanta Journal reports that the review, the first step in a state takeover of county elections, began in August, but the paper acknowledges that Fulton County has a long history of problems including “long lines, lost absentee ballot applications, mismanagement, and slow results.” It isn’t clear how long the review process will take.
I wish I could give you a bottom line on what all this means, but there just isn’t enough information to make an unqualified judgment on what’s going on. Some of the county election overhauls seem innocent enough, others not so much. For quite a few, there just isn’t enough reporting to say for sure either way.
From the time that SB 202 was passed, I hesitated to call it voter suppression, even though I opposed the law and called it a mixture of the good, the bad, and the stupid along with being unnecessary. Even now, I stand by that assessment.
The current crop of county election overhauls still don’t look like voter suppression for several reasons. First, the majority of the laws occur in counties where Republicans already controlled the election boards. In Lincoln County, the one case that looks like a possible attempt to suppress turnout of voters by eliminating rural polling places, the board’s two Democrats signed off on the change.
The Fulton County performance review is also justified. The county has consistently had problems and its difficulties in counting ballots in a timely fashion fueled conspiracy theories back in 2020. County election infrastructure does need to work well.
But I’m still not convinced that the changes are innocent. Republicans are still smarting over losses by Donald Trump, Kelly Loeffler, and David Perdue in 2020. Given the pervasiveness of the Big Lie among Republicans, I don’t really trust the GOP-controlled legislature to do the right thing. Even though stacking the election boards with Republicans and dismissing some outspoken Democrats won’t suppress votes, it might nibble around the edges enough to influence the outcome of close elections. But again, the rub is that these counties are not counties where elections are close.
But an additional consideration is that if Republicans could enhance turnout in red counties while discouraging Democratic turnout in the same places, it could help the GOP in close statewide races. Races like those for the presidency, the Senate, and the governorship. I don’t see evidence that this is what was intended by these laws, but I don’t see evidence that rules it out either.
If there’s a bottom line here, it’s that Republicans seem tone-deaf about the appearances of quietly remaking election boards around the Peach State. In politics, appearances matter, and giving the appearance that your party is trying to stack the deck against the opposition party only a year after blatantly trying to disenfranchise Georgia voters by overturning the election is some seriously bad PR. In fact, I will bluntly state that it stinks like a three-day-old fish.
Georgia Republicans seem to have taken only their own base’s concerns about election integrity into account while ignoring the concerns of other voters that they are attempting to suppress turnout. Non-Republicans also have legitimate concerns about the integrity of the Republican majority.
Regardless of whether voter suppression was the intent or not, when voters perceive that someone is trying to discourage them from voting, they often react by turning out in large numbers. To that end, whatever the Republicans had in mind, their tinkering with state election law may motivate a lot of Democrats to make sure they get to the polls.
It’s not clear that there is anything nefarious about the Georgia Republican overhaul of several county election boards, but it is suspicious. It’s a story that is worth keeping an eye on as news continues to trickle out. Regardless of whether the moves are nefarious or not, it could blow up in the faces of the Georgia GOP by encouraging Democratic voters to make sure they get to the polls.
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