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How powerful will new state election board be?
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A man and woman monitor Hall County's elections board and staff Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, as they process absentee ballots. The process involves verifying signatures and placing ballots in batches for counting. - photo by Scott Rogers

Amid the rewrite of Georgia’s elections laws last week, the State Election Board gained a new chairman’s position and more authority to oversee local elections boards and officials.

Under SB 202, which was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on March 25, the Georgia Secretary of State will no longer chair the State Election Board. The new chairman role will instead be a nonpartisan appointment requiring a majority vote by the state House and Senate.

The legislature would have a tight window to get an appointee confirmed by the time the session adjourns March 31. Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, told The Times that an appointment will not be happening during this session and that the Senate Committee on Ethics will conduct that process.

The law also says the governor should appoint someone if the position becomes vacant when lawmakers are not in session. 

“As we look at this appointment process, someone who could fill this role is someone who hasn’t been involved in a partisan race but has substantive elections experience and has a great understanding of our state’s election laws and processes,” Miller said.

According to state law, the nonpartisan chairman cannot:

  • be an elected official

  • have participated in a political party organization or campaign

  • have made campaign contributions for two years prior to appointment.

The State Election Board is a five-member board that also includes one appointment each made by the House, Senate, the state’s Democrat Party and Republican Party.

Tom Smiley, chair of the Hall County Board of Elections and Registration, said changing the state board’s chair position could create some unique changes for state elections down the road.

“I think this is one of the most interesting parts of this bill because you would imagine it would change how things might run at the state level,” he said.

Hall County has changed its election board chair position in recent years. Smiley was appointed as the first nonpartisan chair in 2017, an appointment opposed by the Democrats on the board at the time. Before that, the board was led by former Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee.

SB 202 also allows the state board to replace or suspend local elections boards and officials if they are deemed to be “underperforming.”

The specific powers and duties given to the State Election Board under the new election law include:

  • the power to suspend elections board members or probate judges and replace them for a period of nine months.

  • the ability to temporarily suspend up to four election superintendents at a time

  • the ability to request an independent group to conduct a performance review of an elections board or probate judge who supervises elections.

Both state and local board officials are unclear on exactly what would necessitate the state board to intervene and by what standards these boards would be considered “underperforming.”

David Worley, a member of the State Election Board told The Times that there isn’t a current statute that provides a clear definition for what classifies as an underperforming elections board.

“I have no idea what it means, and I don’t think there’s ever been an occasion that in 17 years that I thought warranted the State Election Board to overtake a local elections board,” he said. “There isn’t anything in our statute that provides a basis for what it means for a board to underperform.”

Smiley said while SB 202 shouldn’t “fundamentally alter” the board’s ability to conduct local elections, he’s not clear on the ambiguity of the term “underperforming.”

“We have not been given any definitive qualifiers of what represents an underperforming board,” Smiley said. “My guess is it would deal with the specific standards that local boards have to meet.”

Smiley said that the Hall elections board will continue to “follow election code and get done what is required to provide safe and secure elections.” 

The shift in role and responsibilities for the State Election Board has drawn criticism from voting rights groups, including a joint lawsuit against the board and the Secretary of State by the NAACP Georgia State Conference to prevent enforcement of SB 202.

The lawsuit, filed on March 30, is in conjunction with various state and local groups, including Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials’ Latino Community Development Fund.

A previous version of this article included inaccurate information about when the legislative session ends.