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Opinion: A few things leaders should keep in mind when making decisions about election oversight
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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

The mass national hysteria over the conduction of elections spawned by weeks of fake narratives and misinformation has made its way to Hall County, with the local Board of Elections announcing it may be going to court against the county commission over the administrative hierarchy of the county elections office.

At issue is the position of the county’s election supervisor, and whether that position should be hired by, and report to, the Board of Elections, or to the administration of the county government.

From a philosophical standpoint, strong arguments can be made for both positions. From a legal standpoint, the courts may be needed to resolve the issue. From a practical standpoint, we hope the two bodies can mediate a solution that doesn’t require the taxpayers to foot the bill for both sides of litigation that would pit one public faction against the other.

The five-person Board of Elections has two members appointed by the county’s Republican Party, two appointed by the Democratic Party, and a fifth “nonpartisan” chair appointed by the county commission who votes only in case of a tie. Its members work part time and are tasked with oversight of the county election process from beginning to end.

In Georgia, local governments can use a process called “home rule” to make changes in their operational structure. In 2018, the Hall County commission used that process to make the county’s superintendent of elections answerable to the county administrator, rather than to the Board of Elections. Now, members of the election board are questioning whether the county had the legal authority to make that change.

The philosophical debate over the position is more complex than it may initially appear. From one perspective, the question is one of whether the board of elections can be responsible for oversight if it doesn’t manage the one person in charge of the election process? From the other, the question is one of whether the county government can be responsible for the budgeting and staffing for the election office, if it doesn’t manage the one person in charge of the election process?

The conducting of elections is very much a function of local governments. Each of Georgia’s too numerous counties has broad authority to do things its own way. Not all board of elections are set up the same way. Not all counties have someone filling the role of election supervisor as a separate job. Not all election offices are the same. There is no single template of operation approved at the state level, just as there is no uniformity across the states, each of which is empowered to handle elections its own way. Confusion is guaranteed by design.

And it’s not the first time the county’s election process has been brought into question. The effort to reorganize in 2018 was an attempt to bring some stability to ongoing issues creating controversies through the years.

Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager

  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown

  • David George

  • Mandy Harris

  • Brent Hoffman

  • J.C. Smith

  • Tom Vivelo

The largely unnecessary turmoil associated with last year’s elections have led to unprecedented scrutiny of the entire electoral system, including structures of management, across the nation. In Georgia, there has been talk of removing election responsibility from the Secretary of State, because that is an elected position, and putting it in the hands of an appointee of the governor or the legislature, which also are elected positions. The state also is looking at making changes to how local elections are managed, including composition of election boards.

Nationwide, states are considering changes to everything related to the election process, from voter registration to absentee voting laws. New laws related to voting are also being considered at the federal level.

All of that cacophony of political noise is echoing here at home as well. It remains to be seen whether the local issue is headed for a litigious courtroom battleground, or whether it can be resolved by well-intentioned compromise and mediation. We certainly hope the latter is the case.

In resolving the conflict, these are some issues we think should be considered:

  • Despite incredible distractions, and in the midst of an international pandemic, our local elections generally operated smoothly last year. There are always some problems with every election, and there were here as well, but unless there are details of which the public is unaware, the electoral process went well locally, for which both the personnel of the election office and the members of the Board of Elections deserve credit.
  • The composition of the Board of Elections guarantees that it is a body driven by partisan political interests. With four of the five members appointed directly by the political parties, it could be nothing else. Having the Board of Elections responsible for oversight of the election superintendent would remove any elected official from the management hierarchy, but it would not remove political considerations.
  • Executive leadership of local political parties can be very volatile with changing philosophical positions, and those changes can and do impact the appointees to the election board, where members serve two-year terms. Election board management of staff holds little promise for continuity of direction or stability, which often are key to efficiency and success.
  • The employees of the election office, managed by the election superintendent, are employees of the county government, not of the board of elections. As such, the county government has a legitimate role in the administration of the office. The top election position is not a constitutionally mandated office, such as the sheriff or clerk of the court, which has a legal authority to operate separately from the county government.
  • It is impossible for a government to be responsible for holding elections and not have elected officials involved in some capacity. Yes, there is the potential for misconduct inherent in the situation, but there is no process for conducting elections through government entities that doesn’t at some point along the chain of decision making involve an elected position. Believing otherwise is naive, as is thinking that those in elected positions are more of a danger to fair elections than are those representing political party interests.

If the ultimate goal is professionalism and efficiency, we think the county government administration is better suited for the day-to-day management of the elections office than is the part-time board with a majority of its membership appointed by political parties.

We understand why the Board of Elections questions the legality of the change made by the county in 2018. While it may yet require a ruling from the courts, we hope a resolution can be reached that allows for a sharing of responsibilities in a reasonable way between the two entities, perhaps with some sort of “dotted-line” organizational structure, pending the drafting of new legislation if necessary to resolve the conflict.

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