By Tia Lynn Ivey
Change is on the horizon for Morgan County’s election board, but it is not a welcomed change for local Democrats and several other concerned community groups, who claim the new county takeover of the election board is “unethical” and could result in lopsided partisan representation as well as possible voter suppression.
Now, State Representative Dave Belton is facing backlash for throwing his support behind the bill that would give county commissioners full control over who serves on the local election board.
Last September, the Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) held a controversial vote without allowing public comment beforehand, to take over all member-appointments to the election board. Currently, the five-member Morgan County Board of Elections and Registration (BOER) is comprised of two members appointed by the Morgan County GOP, two members appointed by the Morgan County Democrats, and one member appointed by the county commissioners.
County Commissioners voted 3-to-1 to fully take over election board appointments, with supporting commissioners citing “partisan infighting” and “contentious behavior” among members on the election board as the reason for seeking the change. Commissioners Ben Riden, Andy Ainslie and now former Commissioner Ron Milton, all Republicans, voted to file a request with the Georgia State General Assembly to amend local legislation regulating election board appointments. Commissioner Donald Harris, the lone Democrat on the BOC, voted against the change.
Proponents argue that the county commissioners will make “non-partisan” selections, and therefore fix “the partisan divide” on the election board, which often results in a split vote down party lines, requiring the chairman to break the tie.
Opponents argue that the change gives county commissioners, elected officials themselves with party affiliations, too much power over who sits on the election board. Opponents worry that political minorities, in this case Democrats, will not have adequate representation on the local election board and therefore, will not be able to advocate for voting policies that matter to their constituents.
Despite vocal opposition to the bill, Belton is pressing forward with the legislation, defending his decision in an exclusive interview with the Morgan County Citizen.
“I have had dozens of conversations with Republican and Democrat Party leaders, every single Commissioner, the Election Manager, and every current Board of Election member about this legislation,” said Belton. “The vast majority of these people support this change. Therefore, while I wish it were not necessary, I intend to fulfill the 4-1 vote majority of the duly elected Commissioners who have presented this to me.”
However, the BOC vote was 3-to-1, not 4-to-1, and several of the people and groups Belton claims to have spoken to are disputing his claims. County Commissioner Donald Harris, the BOER members Helen Butler and Avery Jackson, and Jeanne Dufort on behalf of the Morgan County Democratic Committee, all deny Belton ever contacted them about the election board change.
“He never spoke to me about it and I have never spoken to him about it,” said Commissioner Harris. “And I still oppose this.”
Butler, one of the Democratic appointees on the BOER, said Belton has never reached out to her or her fellow Democratic BOER appointee, Avery Jackson.
“No, he has never talked to me or Avery about this matter at all,” said Butler. “And we certainly don’t support this.”
Dufort said she asked all but one member of the Morgan County Democrats’ committee team and none of them have spoken to Belton about the proposed changes to the election board.
“Who are these democratic leaders he’s speaking about? It’s certainly not the local elected democrats or our Democratic committee. We can’t find anyone who has spoken to Dave Belton about this, let alone expressed support for this,” said Dufort. “The Morgan County Democrats are very disturbed that Rep. Dave Belton would sponsor legislation without consulting with local Democrats, including the two representatives appointed by the Morgan County Democrats.”
The Morgan County NAACP confirmed they held a conference call with Belton on Dec. 15, but stressed their opposition to giving county commissioners full control over the election board. Both the NAACP and the Morgan County Ministers Union have expressed their opposition to Belton.
“As President of the Morgan County NAACP and Vice President of the Morgan County Ministers Union, I let Mr. Belton know that we are against this change, that it is unethical, unfair, and discriminatory to essentially give one political party full control over our election board,” said Pastor Lonnie Brown. Brown, along with other opponents to the bill, fear that since the Morgan County BOC is currently comprised of four Republicans and only one Democrat, that the appointees to the election board could be tainted in favor of the local Republican Party.
However, Belton argues that the BOC’s selections will be non-partisan.
“Nearly everyone agrees that politics have become too partisan. The Morgan County Board of Commissioners have suggested a way to ‘lower the temperature’ by appointing a completely non-partisan Board of Elections,” said Belton. “This is not an unusual step. Many counties have non-partisan Board of Elections, as much as 20 percent of the state. What is unusual is the lack of cooperation in the current Board of Elections in Morgan County.”
Belton, along with the three county commissioners who embraced this change, blame the partisan nature of the current election board for prompting the proposed change.
“In general, Morgan County is awash with well-running, fair-minded boards which bring people from all sides together in mutual agreements. As chronicled by many newspaper articles in several different venues over several years, the Morgan County Board of Elections is an unfortunate exception to this happy rule,” said Belton. “There have been many well-documented instances of dysfunction within this board, the most important being that virtually every vote ends up in a two-to-two tie, with the Chairman breaking the tie on every vote. Thus, this five person board has become a de facto one-person board in which the Chairman must make every decision.”
However, Butler, who has served on the BOER since 2010, disputes this claim, noting that members have crossed party lines in both directions on pivotal votes that came before the election board. Butler noted she and Jackson, Democrats, voted in favor of a proposal from former Republican member Scott Sellers, when he proposed a raise for poll workers. Butler also pointed out that former Chairman Michael Ghioto, a Republican, voted along with the Democratic members on adding a drop-box for ballots during the pandemic and extending voting hours. “We don’t always agree, but we have compromised and we have worked together,” said Butler.
Butler said she believes the Democratic appointees are being targeted for advocating policies that expand voting rights.
“We want people to have easy access to voting. We want the process to be transparent and we want to educate people on the process,” said Butler. “A large portion of the Democrats in Morgan are people of color. This change is going to result in taking away their ability to have representation in how elections are run.”
Butler also called the county-controlled appointment process a serious “conflict of interest” for commissioners.
“Elected officials should not determine who gets to run elections. It sounds unethical. It smells partisan even though it may not be, but it gives the appearance that it is. And most of all, it takes the voice away of a large swath of the county on our election board,” said Butler. “We think it is detrimental because it’s unethical that elected officials would try to stack the board, deciding who gets to run elections — especially, in this climate where people have been distrusting the process. They don’t want certain people to have a voice in how our elections are run and they don’t want the transparency and they don’t want us advocating for easy access to voting.”
In contrast, the Morgan County GOP publicly expressed support for the change.
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 after the initial county vote in September. Other local Republican leaders also expressed support for the chance including former Morgan GOP President John Anton and former BOER member David Moore.
The Morgan NAACP released an official statement against the change, urging the community to stand against this bill.
“This bill violates the integrity of the elections board and is not a fair representation of the community. The Morgan County NAACP urges all voters to contact Rep. Belton to express your opposition and blatant disregard for your voting rights. Let us stand together as a community to send a message that fairness and nondiscriminatory practices on the elections board is crucial to our democratic process,” said a press release from the Morgan NAACP.
For the change to become finalized, Belton must present House Bill 162 to the state legislature for a vote and if it passes, State Senator Burt Jones must take the bill before the state senate for a vote to be finalized.
According to County Manager Adam Mestres, if the bill is adopted by the state and house legislatures, all future appointments by commissioners will be made “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.”
Belton believes county commissioners will keep their promise to appoint non-partisan election board members.
“I have every confidence that the Commissioners will appoint fair-minded non-partisan people to the Board of Elections, and will reject divisive partisans who put party above the general welfare,” said Belton.
Critics say they’ll believe it when they see it.
“We don’t expect to be well-represented on the election board that this current board of commissioners would pick,” said Dufort on behalf of the Morgan County Democrats. “They haven’t shown us any reason to think they’d seek out members who would be bipartisan in nature or would represent the full constituency of the county.”