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How did we get here? Tracing recent history of election oversight in Hall County as boards feud
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Hall County Elections Director Lori Wurtz moves a batch of provisional ballots to be counted Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

Who has oversight over the Hall County director of elections position has been at the center of a recent dispute between Hall County administrators and elections board members. 

Following a tumultuous election year and amid a poor review of the director, the elections board is poised to sue the county over a change made in 2018.

It was among many changes made to the administration of elections in Hall County since at least 2014.

Two pieces of local legislation have fundamentally changed Hall County’s elections department’s configuration, including a consolidation of election boards and creation of a new director of elections position.

According to the elections board, the genesis of their issue is whether Hall County administration had the legal authority to create the elections director position in 2018.

Tracing recent history of elections board, director 

Many counties in Georgia have two separate entities that comprise an elections department, a Board of Elections and Board of Registrars. 

Before 2014, Hall County had a similar two-board configuration for its elections department, and Charlotte Sosebee filled the role of elections superintendent and chief registrar until her departure in November 2016.

“The elections office was combined, but the boards were separate entities with different roles and responsibilities in the election process,” said Sosebee, who is now the director of elections for Athens-Clarke County. “So the registrars board had fallen under the judicial system, and the elections board was filled via appointment.”

The elections board consisted of one Republican and one Democrat each, and the elections superintendent appointed by the county commissioners served on both boards and reported to the county manager. 

In Hall County, the elections superintendent’s powers included conducting primaries and elections and that person reported to the county administrator.

Sosebee said that the superintendent position was “always intended to report to the county manager” to maintain a nonpartisan position.

“The elections director was always supposed to fall under the umbrella of the county administrator as a way to keep it nonpartisan,” Sosebee said. 

Things changed in 2015.

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In 2014, the passage of a bill formerly titled HB 1131 created a unified five-member board of elections and registration for Hall County, subsequently abolishing the board of registration. The elections board assumed the powers to conduct elections and registration and absentee balloting measures.

The board would maintain a partisan split among the four board members — two Democrats and two Republicans — and the elections superintendent served as a nonpartisan, non-voting chair who provided updates to the board.

When Sosebee accepted the elections director position for Athens-Clarke County following the 2016 presidential election, Hall County appointed Bill Moats, then-human resources director, to oversee its elections department.

But 2018 was another year of change for Hall County’s elections department. First, Lori Wurtz was hired to the position of elections superintendent in April 2018. 

The second change to the elections department is the current cause of friction between county administrators and the elections board.

In July 2018, Hall County commissioners invoked home rule to amend the 2014 local legislation and created a new director of elections position who would be tasked with overseeing the “day-to-day” elections operations and would report to the county administrator.

However, the elections board believes since the elections director reports to county administration that means the position is essentially reporting to the elected Board of Commissioners, which appoints county administration.

The elections board maintained full authority to run elections and register voters and the elections office. 

Ken Jarrard, attorney for the elections board in a March 1 interview, told The Times that a fundamental concern among the board members is whether the county had the legal authority to make the 2018 changes.

“At the heart of the issue, at least for my client, is does the county have the legal authority to create this position and maintain supervision of the election director,” he said.

Elections director performance in question

But the elections board’s concerns with the county administration, aired during a March 1 meeting, include additional grievances, including an evaluation of Wurtz during the 2020 election cycle. The board cited an “inconsistent and harsh” report of Wurtz and an underfunded and understaffed department.

Wurtz received a poor evaluation from Assistant County Administrator Zach Propes, who cited “balloting issues” during the 2020 election cycle among other complaints regarding Wurtz’s performance.

Propes did not specify the balloting issues, and the county declined to comment on the matter, citing potential litigation.

The county, however, praised its performance during the 2020 election cycle in a recent state-of-the-county address, stating that the county “successfully conducted multiple elections throughout the year, despite many, many challenges.”

In Wurtz’s evaluation, Propes identified a 90-day performance plan to include successful management of the upcoming 2021 municipal elections and the implementation of a “short-term and long-term” re-organization of the elections department.

In a 10-item document approved at the March 1 meeting, the board raised concerns about the county’s 90-day performance plan.

The elections board believes that Hall County administration “should not affect directly or indirectly” the procedures of an election.

Board member Ken Cochran noted that Wurtz’s poor evaluation “shocked the board,” and board member David Kennedy suggested commissioners could be looking to replace Wurtz.

"Hall County Board of Commissioners is attempting to maintain control over their own election in which they themselves are elected," Kennedy said during the March 1 meeting.

The board’s displeasure with the county’s evaluation of Wurtz also cites an underfunded and understaffed department that handicaps the elections director.

Hall County, the 10th-largest county in Georgia, has operated at an election budget under $900,000 despite having between 120,000 to 132,000 registered voters from 2016 to 2020.

During the 2020 election cycle, Hall County budgeted $890,315 for its elections department for the 2021 fiscal year, its highest allocation in a decade.

The elections board noted that Hall County conducted county elections on a budget that was “appreciably lower than comparably sized jurisdictions” and it has just three full-time elections department employees.

During the meeting, board members cited Richmond County, which has 139,527 registered voters and a double-digit full-time elections staff.

The board noted that the Hall County elections department “allocated less resources” such as physical work, storage space and personnel than “comparable departments.”

What happens next

The two sides are at a stalemate.

According to Jarrard, the elections board is “open” to a conversation with county administrators regarding the issue. 

However, multiple board members at the March 1 meeting said the county has not expressed interest in meditation efforts.

Hall isn’t the only one with an elections department under review.

This year, Fulton County voted to fire its elections director, after receiving national attention and criticism from former President Donald Trump over its balloting procedures. Other counties such as Gwinnett are looking to pass legislation to reconstitute their boards of elections and registration.

And recent legislation that has passed the House — including heightened identification standards and the elimination of absentee ballot provisions and access — could fundamentally change how elections in the state are conducted.

At the March 1 meeting, board chairman Tom Smiley praised Wurtz and noted that she performed well during an election cycle upended by a global pandemic and saw Georgia emerge as a key swing state.

Sosebee did not comment on the current situation between the Hall administrators and the elections board but did offer perspective on the balancing act that many elections directors across Georgia are facing.

“Each county has a different configuration and the role of the elections director can be difficult to the wide encompassing task in ensuring fair and free elections,” she said. “Without a uniform elections system throughout, it can be a confusing task to administer an election.”

The elections board is scheduled to meet on the second floor of the Hall County Government Center at 3:30 p.m. on March 9, although agenda items have not been released yet.