By Tia Lynn Ivey
Partisan tensions flared at Tuesday night’s Morgan County Board of Commissioners meeting. Local Democrats accused commissioners of making corrupt “backroom deals” and denying the citizens their right to be heard before a vote on how members of the Board of Elections and Registration (BOER) are selected.
Much to the chagrin of the local Democratic party, they will no longer have a say on who sits on the Morgan County Board of Elections and Registration (BOER), From now on, county commissioners will appoint all members of the election board in an effort to squelch the long-time “partisan divide” on the board. Despite a crowded audience of citizens intent on voicing their perspectives on the issue, the board refused public comment before the vote. Several attendees attempted to interject, but were silenced by Chairman Philipp von Hanstein, who insisted on moving forward with the controversial vote.
Since 2006, Morgan County has worked with the local political parties to make appointments for the five-member election board. Morgan County commissioners appoint the chairman, the Morgan County Republican Party appoints two members and the Morgan County Democratic Party appoints two members. After complaints of “infighting” and “contentious behavior” on the election board, some county commissioners wanted to do away with the local political parties appointing members. The county commissioners have voted to end the joint partnership, opting to appoint all the members of the BOER. Opponents point out that the county commissioners themselves claim partisan affiliations, with four of the commissioners running as Republicans and only one running as a Democrat. Commissioner Donald Harris, the lone Democrat on the county commission, motioned for a compromise in which the commissioners appoint three members and each political party appoints one member. Harris’ motion died for lack of a second.
The board voted 3-to-1, with Harris dissenting, to file a request with the Georgia State General Assembly to amend local legislation regulating election board appointments. The vote prompted jeers from the crowd, many of whom waited until the end of the meeting to deliver public comments to the commissioners. Comments fell down party lines, with Democratic commenters opposing the vote and Republican commenters supporting it.
Jeanne Dufort, the second vice chair of the Morgan County Democrats, chastised commission members for the rushed vote without seeking public input.
“I am extraordinarily disappointed at the raw display of powers I saw here today,” said Dufort.
“Why the heck are you trying to take over this board—to effectively disband this board without a public comment, without a public hearing? It shows you are not well suited to appoint an election board, when its pure purpose is for the members to come out of their partisan skins to run clean and fair elections.”
Dufort also criticized the commissioners for not notifying Helen Butler or Avery Jackson, the two Democrats who serve on Morgan County Board of Elections and Registration, of the proposed new appointment system.
Cheryl Bland, who serves on the Morgan County Board of Education, accused the BOC of predetermining the vote long before the meeting was held Tuesday night.
“I know how these decisions are made. I know you all are at the golf course together, at dinner together, you can’t deny that that is how this goes. I know how this works, I’ve been black a long time,” said Bland. “You all need to remember that you are elected by the citizens of this county and work for us and that you will come up for reelection.”
Republicans in attendance praised the commissioners for the decision, arguing that the Democratic members on the election board were “contentious” and “ran off” many of the Republican appointees.
“When there are two members who will not even vote to adjourn the meeting, it’s a contentious environment,” said Stephen Morris, vice chair of the Morgan County Republican Party.
John Anton, the former chairman of the Morgan County Republican Party, accused the Democratic members of the election board and other local Democrats of “intimidation” and “veiled threats” when the county was debating closing two voting precincts several years ago.
“They showed up to a public meeting in NAACP jackets,” said Anton. “There was a veiled threat of a lawsuit if we closed down the precincts, which was costing the county money to keep open…It seemed to me they didn’t have the best interest of the citizens at heart.”
David Moore, a former Republican appointee on the board of election, praised the county commissioners for the decision, urging the crowd to trust their judgment.
“We have to remember that you all know a whole lot more about what’s going on than we do, so I do not want to pass judgment of what you’re doing. People need to realize that,” said Moore.
Other Democrats issued public comments condemning the county commissioners for the way the vote was handled.
Brad Rice also accused the commissioners of deciding the take over the election board appointments before the meeting.
“If ever we had an illustration of a behind-the-scenes decision-making, this is it,” said Rice. “No public comment and no explanation for something that impacts every person in this county over the age of 18. This was a behind-the-scenes deal, you exhibited it tonight.”
Donald Melvin, with the Morgan County Branch of the NAACP, called the vote “unfair” and “disappointing.”
Terry Reeves asked the commissioners, “How can you make a decision affecting the citizens of Morgan County without hearing from the citizens of Morgan County?”
Pastor Aaron Carter criticized four county commissioners for brushing off Commissioner Donald Harris’ attempt at a compromise.
“It was reprehensible. The disrespect you all showed to Donald Harris was shameful. You all were elected by the citizens of Morgan County and I think you all forget that,” said Carter.
Chairman von Haustein thank each speaker for their comments, but did not respond.
Commissioners Andy Ainslie, Ben Riden, and Ron Milton voted in favor of the county commissioners appointing all election board members,
According to county officials, the current BOER appointment system has created its share of inefficiency, controversy and deadlock votes due to the partisan affiliations of those on the board.
“Often times you have the two Republicans voting together, and the two Democrats voting together, resulting in a split vote,” explained County Manager Adam Mestres. “Then the chairman has to cast a vote to break the tie.”
According to Mestres, the county commissioners asked staff to look into revising the appointment system for the BOER, in order to appointment members “regardless of political affiliation.”
“When we make appointments for other boards, we do not ask people what their political party is,” said Mestres. “We think this will be a better way to make appointments as we continue to ensure safe, fair and efficient elections for the citizens of Morgan County.”
The Morgan County Republican and Democratic parties have conflicting opinions about the BOC’s move to take over BOER member appointments. After the meeting, representatives from both local parties issued statements.
Stephen Morris, vice chair of the Morgan County Republicans, said his party is in favor of the new system.
“We feel due to the contentious nature of the current BOER, this will be a good thing for everybody,” said Morris.
Jeanne Dufort argued that elected partisan officials should not be overseeing the BOER.
“Elections should not be run by elected officials. Morgan County has had a bi-partisan appointed election board for years,” said Dufort. “Our elections are well run, and our voter turnout leads the state. What problem are the commissioners trying to solve?”
County officials say the election board has been rife with political divides that stall action.
There has been a revolving door of members in recent years on the BOER. Longtime member Scott Sellers died over the summer. David Moore resigned, as did former chairman Michael Ghioto. The current board is comprised of Chairman Dr. James Woodard, Dena Lanier, Helen Butler, Avery Jackson, and Bob McCauley. Woodard and McCauley are finishing out the unexpired terms of Ghioto and Sellers.
Lanier and McCauley are the Republican Party picks and Butler and Jackson are the Democratic Party’s picks. The County appointed Woodard as chairman when Ghioto resigned a few months ago. Each member is appointed to a four-year term. The next appointments are slated for December 2021 when the term of Butler is up. Woodard and McCauley will also be up for reappointment since they are serving out the terms of Sellers and Ghioto.
Lanier and and Jackson are up for reappointment in December of 2023.
According to Mestres, there is no uniform system in Georgia to appoint members of election boards. “It’s a smorgasbord,” said Mestres, who presented data on how other Georgia counties appoint their election boards. Some opt to have the county commissioners appoint members, but nearly two-thirds of the counties cited limit county commissioners or judges to appointing just one member to election boards.
The request will be considered by both chambers of the Georgia Assembly for passage in January.
“We are not repealing and replacing the original legislation from 2006, we are asking for an amendment to it,” said Mestres. “This came at the behest of the board of county commissioners.”