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Unclear when state election board chair will be appointed, what happens in meantime
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Early voters arrive Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, to the City of Gainesville Downtown Building to cast their early ballot on the final day of early voting. - photo by Scott Rogers

Georgia’s controversial election revision law calls for the creation of a legislatively appointed chairman for the state election board and the demotion of the secretary of state from that position. But a local lawmaker says it may be a year before the chairmanship can be filled. 

“We are changing the process by which the chair of the nonpartisan elections board is chosen,” state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, told The Times. The chair (is chosen) now by the General Assembly, which means, since we don’t meet again for a while, the timeframe for this change is a ways out.”

Senate President Pro Tem Miller said, “It may be a ways out until they start the process, but they know what they want for the position.”

“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 previously told The Times.

According to the law, the chairperson is to be appointed via a majority vote of the state Senate and House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 202 was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp on March 26. The law, most of which went into effect with the governor’s signature,  already is the subject of at least four lawsuits.

And while the state is preparing for a full election year in 2022 that includes races for the governorship, statewide offices and one U.S. Senate seat, the law isn’t clear on how the board is supposed to operate between now and the appointment of a new chairman sometime next year.

The law makes the secretary of state a non-voting, ex officio member of the board and removes him as chairman, but does not spell out any sort of a transition between now and the appointment of a chairman next year.

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Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. - photo by Nick Bowman

While it’s uncertain when a chairperson will be appointed, it is clear that the expectation is that the “nonpartisan” appointee will be someone who is not an elected official, has not contributed to political campaigns for at least two years, and who has not campaigned for other candidates.

In a March 31 interview with the Times, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the chairman role is intended to be someone “out of politics.”

“Someone who hasn’t contributed to a campaign or has not gotten involved,” he said to The Times. “Which means they never vote. They vote for city council because that’s the only time it’s nonpartisan.”

Raffensperger said he thinks the chairperson role weakens local election board decision making and accountability for election officials in upcoming elections.

Under the revamped election law, the board has broad new powers to intervene at the county level when there are perceived problems with local election officials.

When The Times reached out to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr for a legal interpretation of the law relative to the chairmanship, officials there said they were unable to provide legal guidance due to their role as the defendant in four lawsuits against the state over SB 202.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger - photo by Associated Press

“Because this law is now subject to four lawsuits —  we are defending the state in all four —  our office is not in a position to provide legal interpretations or analysis outside the filings,” said Katie Byrd, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office.

The four lawsuits, two filed against Raffensperger and two filed against Kemp -- are by groups that allege the 98-page bill is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

In a suit filed by the NAACP against Raffensperger, the civil rights group states that changes to the State Election Board --  replacing the Secretary of State with a voting member appointed by the General Assembly and granting the State Election Board increased authority over local election supervisors  -- will affect the autonomy of county election boards.

Carl Cavalli, a political scientist at the University of North Georgia, said the bill is a power shift for local control of elections.

“The new law gives a lot of control over electoral matters to the state legislature. That would include presidential and Senate elections as well as state contests at all levels,” Cavalli said. “It’s a big shift of power.”

In a prior interview, Cavalli said that while Georgia’s bill does expand voter access it’s still one of the most voter-restrictive policies in the country.

“While the bill provides for some expanded voting time, and some of the more controversial proposals were dropped (like ending no-excuse absentee voting), it would still be one of the most restrictive sets of measures in the country,” he said. “One might say that the bill has awakened a sleeping giant … the business community.”

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.

Currently, the board is made up of Secretary of State Raffensperger, Vice Chair Rebecca Sullivan, David Worley, Matthew Mashburn and Ahn Le.

Election Board member Worley told the Times the board has gotten “no information” about when a chairperson will be appointed and expects Raffensperger to be running the next meeting on April 28.

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