State Representative Dave Belton is backing a controversial vote of the Morgan County Board of Commissioners to take over the appointment process of the county’s election board. The vote caused an upset at last Tuesday county commissioner meeting, with attendees denied the opportunity to issue public comments prior to the vote.
Amidst groans, in a 3-to-1 vote, the county commissioners voted to appoint all future members of the county election board, taking away the role of the local Republican and Democratic parties in the process. The appointment process for the five-member board was divvied up between local political parties, with Republican appointing two members, Democrats appointing two members, and then, the county commissioners appointing one member.
Proponents of the switch, including the four Republican county commissioners, argued that the current election board is “contentious” with “in-fighting”and should be comprised of “non-partisan” appointees chosen by county commissioners. Opponents, which included the sole Democrat on the county commission, Donald Harris, argued that both political parties should have guaranteed representation on the board to ensure fair elections, uphold voting rights, and that all Morgan County citizens are fairly represented. Opponents also accused the Republican county commissioners of trying to oust the current Democrat-appointed members of the election board, Avery Jackson and Helen Butler. Attendees accused the commissioners of making “a backroom deal” to take over the election board without properly holding public hearings or even notifying the members of the election board. County Commissioners argued the current appointment system results in too many split votes, inefficiency, and partisan bickering.
Commissioners Andy Ainslie, Bed Riden, and Ron Milton voted in favor of the county commissioners appointing all election board members, Commissioner Donald Harris voted against it. Now, it is up to Morgan County’s delegation, comprised of Belton and State Senator Burt Jones, to take up the county commissioners request to the state legislature for final approval. Jones did not return request for comment, but Belton plans to support the measure.
“I am waiting for the formal letter from the Commissioners to clarify what exactly they decided, but in theory, yes, I support this decision,” said Belton. “I will also note that over the past few years there has been a growing trend towards creating non-partisan board of elections all across the state. This requested change has been one that dozens of counties have already adopted.”
According to Belton, the county commissioners can be trusted to make sound non-partisan appointments to the election board, despite having their own political affiliations.
“Our Commissioners always act in a very bi-partisan fashion. For example, for many years we had a Democrat Commissioner Chairman who was elected by four other Republican Commissioners. The Chairman of our BOE has been an Independent for decades amongst a majority of Republicans. Both of these is remarkable,” said Belton. “Our Board of Elections, however, has been the sad exception to this cordial relationship. Ever since I can remember, because of the personality of some of the members, the board has been divisive and overly partisan. I trust the Commissioners to appoint a group of fair-minded individuals that will put justice over politics, thus creating a more non-partisan board.”
However critics are wary of the new appointment procedure, fearing the majority republican county commission will weed out Democrats on the election board, leaving county democratic voters underrepresented, especially in communities of color.
“I am not in county commissioners’ heads, so I cannot say for sure what the reason is, but the outward appearance seems to look like this is what they are doing,” said Helen Butler, one of the Democratic appointees serving on the county’s election board since 2013.
“I am hoping our legislative delegation understands that people, all people, should be represented on this board,” said Butler. “I would hope that Morgan County wouldn’t want a reputation for denying people the right to speak their opinion. We have asked for nothing as board members that is outside of the law.”
Butler stressed for the need of political diversity on a board overseeing elections and voting rights.
“There are other people who have different ideas and if you don’t get a diversity of ideas, then it’s a disservice,” said Butler. “The diversity of ideas is what makes people great, it is what makes counties great and it is what makes countries great.”
Butler denied accusation of contention and bickering on the board.
“We may disagree, and we may have different opinions, but the majority vote wins and we have always accepted that,” said Butler. “I still have the right to express my opinion. I do my job well and I try to do it fairly. I do it with every voter in mind.”
Butler said that she and Avery Jackson have crossed over partisan lines to vote in agreement with their Republican colleagues on the board numerous times. Butler cited that she and Jackson voted for former Republican member Scott Sellers proposal to give poll workers a pay raise. They also voted in favor of reducing the number of voting precincts from 11 to 7.
Butler worried that if the county commissioners make all the appointments on the election board, the perspectives and obstacles of some voters will go unnoticed, unheard, and unconsidered. One of the issues she and Jackson regularly butt heads with Republican members of the board is the issue of voter access.
“We differ opinion about the level of access to allow voters to cast their votes,” said Butler. “I know the people who live in Morgan County, especially the communities of color. I know their struggle to get to meetings and to cast their votes because they are not well off, and they do not have the same privileges so they need easy access to voting. To me, my first obligation as a board member is to ensure that every person who wants to exercise their right to vote can do without problem and without barriers.”
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Butler said she and Jackson advocated for drop boxes for voters and the recruitment of younger, tech savvy poll workers to help in-person voting go smoother and safer.
“We have to have these kind of discussions, even if we disagree with one another,” said Butler. “That’s the only way to make sure all the voters interests are represented and every idea is considered fairly.”
The local political parties in Morgan County, in true partisan fashion, have taken opposing side on the new appointment system pushed by the county commissioners.
The Morgan County Republicans have come out publicly for the switch, expressing trust in the commissioners to make fair appointments. “We feel due to the contentious nature of the current BOER, this will be a good thing for everybody,” said Stephen Morris, vice chair of the Morgan County Republicans, at last week’s commissioner meeting. Other Republicans spoke in favor of the switch including John Anton and David Moore, two former members of the election board.
The Morgan County Democrats are opposed to the switch and the way in which the county commissioners conducted the vote.
“The record is clear. Unnamed people brought charges of ‘bickering’ against unnamed election board members, presumably the Democratic members if we believe comments made by Republicans at the BOC meeting,” said Jeanne Dufort, second vice chair of the Morgan County Democrats. “Normal business practice would require such concerns to be addressed with all the parties involved, and the folks who appointed them. Helen Butler and Avery Jackson, and the Democratic Committee who appointed them, were not consulted about the perceived problem before the decision was made to effectively terminate their service. Republican Party officials and Rep Dave Belton were consulted, and took positions without speaking with all the parties involved in the allegations. The Board of Commissioners (BOC) took action on hearsay. To assert that the BOC, with four Republican elected members, is now prepared to act in a truly bipartisan way boggles the imagination.”
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 Michael Ghioto and the late Scott Sellers. 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. The request from the Morgan County Board of Commissioners to take charge of the election board appointments will be considered by both chambers of the Georgia Assembly for passage in January.