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Opinion: Board of Elections needs to learn the rules of the game — and fast
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Craig Lutz, a member of the Hall County Elections Board, speaks during a Jan. 16, 2018, Elections Board meeting in which the board rescinded a 2017 vote to adopt bilingual ballots for county and state elections. - photo by David Barnes

The 2020 election cycle in Georgia promises to be one of the most challenging in the state’s history. New voting machines. Questions about voter rolls. Aggressive efforts to register new voters. Precinct location challenges. Litigation. Partisan fighting. Strident candidates and an angry electorate. Microscopic scrutiny from all quarters.

All of those factors and more will come into play during the election process, and local election boards are going to have to be at the top of their game to avoid controversy, chaos and courtrooms.

Last week, the Hall County Board of Elections proved that not only is it not at the top of its game, it doesn’t really even understand the rules.

Asked by the county and city school systems to formally call for a special purpose local option sales tax for education and a bond referendum to coincide with the March presidential preference primary, the election board on Tuesday decided instead that it would refuse to do so. By Friday, having been informed that it had no authority to refuse to set the referendum date, it had reconsidered and approved the election as requested.

There are so many disturbing issues involved in last week’s antics that it’s hard to know where to begin in discussing them. A majority of the board took it upon themselves to decide the presidential primary wasn’t a good time to vote on the school issues. 

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Board member Craig Lutz said he thought the timing was bad because Republican voters may not make the trip to the polls, since only one candidate will be on the GOP’s presidential ballot.

The same election board that approved a SPLOST vote for November, when it was the only issue on the countywide ballot and saw a turnout of about 5% of voters, suddenly was concerned about potentially low Republican turnout for a referendum in March. 

Friday, Board Chairman Tom Smiley said he thought the referendum should be delayed for better voter participation. Apparently voter participation in the county’s November SPLOST vote wasn’t a concern for him.

Try to make sense of that shift in position and the only explanation that resonates is that someone had a bone to pick with the schools more so than potential number of voters. Or they assumed Republicans were more likely to vote no and hoped to see the issues defeated.

According to the election board, a county government requested referendum on an election day with no other ballot issues at all to draw voters was fine, but a school system request to hold a referendum on the same day voters will vote for a presidential candidate was flawed. It’s hard to look at that logic and not believe it was meant to be punitive toward the schools.

Board member Lutz made no bones about the fact he thought the referendum should be delayed until a later election so that more Republicans would vote on it. That is a decision rooted openly in partisan politics, not part of what is supposed to be a nonpartisan process of assuring fair elections, which is the election board’s mandate.

Not to mention that it embarrassingly belittles Republican voters by assuming they wouldn’t bother to go to the polls just to vote on the school issues.

The two Republican appointees to the board, Lutz and Ken Cochran voted to force the referendum until a later date, and Chairman Smiley sided with them in doing so in order to break a tie with the two Democrat appointed members, Gala Sheats and David Kennedy. When they met again Friday to reverse the decision, Lutz still refused to change his position, despite being advised the law was not on his side and the courts had ruled the election board did not have the authority to do what he wanted to do.

The bylaws for the board say that members “shall place their public duties ahead of partisan and political considerations.” Clearly that wasn’t the case here as concern for party affiliation of prospective voters was the deciding factor, at least for Lutz, in the original vote to delay the referendum.

How is the board of elections going to defend itself against claims of prejudice in the future when it freely admits to having made a decision based on whether voters from a certain party will go to the polls?

The election board tried to excuse its action by pointing out the school referendum scheduling was submitted to the board for consideration on Monday, not in time for the agenda for its Tuesday meeting and that school officials were not on hand to discuss the request. 

But if that was truly the issue, why not just postpone a decision on setting the referendum date pending future discussion, rather than turning down the request by acting in defiant ignorance?

State law provides certain days each year on which elections can be scheduled. When it comes to a referendum, local elected officials, not members of the election board who are appointed by political parties, request which of those days they wish to hold balloting.

There should never have been ambiguity over the process, and if ambiguity did exist, direction from legal counsel should have been sought.

The election board members just cavalierly decided the referendum would work just as well in May, or maybe November, ignoring the reality that shifting the vote by months could have a dramatic impact on the school systems’ financial plans and projections.

The board of elections is not the place for political grandstanding, which has been Mr. Lutz’s specialty since his days on the county commission. That he has a new stage for doing so on the county’s election board as we head into what promises to be a difficult political year is unfortunate and does not bode well for the balloting process in 2020.

It will fall to Chairman Smiley to make sure the board stays on task and worries about voting process and procedures, not politics. If he is unable to do so, turbulent times may be ahead.