The Morgan County election board is undergoing an era of significant change. Not only are local election officials moving into a new office this summer and learning the ins and outs of the new SB 202 election overhaul reform bill, the entire Morgan County election board is set to be replaced at the end of this month.

“All five members of the election board will be removed and new members will be appointed by our county commissioners, beginning to serve on July 1, 2021,” said Jennifer Doran, director of Morgan County elections.

The board shakeup is the result of a controversial request from the Morgan County commissioners, asking the Georgia State General Assembly to grant them the authority to do away with the bipartisan model for election board appointments in exchange for a total county-controlled appointment system.

Morgan County put out an ad last week, requesting interested candidates submit an application to serve on the Morgan County Board of Elections and Registration (BOER).

According to Doran, all five of the current BOER members will be removed, but the county commissioners are free to reappoint current members if they so choose.

“There is no prohibition against the commissioner appointing people who have already served on the BOER,” said Doran.

The new appointment system 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.

The old model of BOER appointments allowed the local Republican and Democratic parties to each appoint two members, and the county commissioner to appoint one. Now, county commissioners will appoint all five members. In February, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill to phase out Morgan County’s volunteer bipartisan election board and allow county commissioners to make all future election board appointments.

The current election board is comprised of Republicans Bob McCauley and Dena Lanier, Democrats Helen Butler and Avery Jackson, and Dr. James Woodard serves as the independent chairman appointed by the county.

The controversy began last September, when the Morgan County Board of Commissioners held a controversial vote, without allowing public comment beforehand, to take over all member-appointments to the election board. County Commissioners voted 3-to-1 to fully take over election board appointments, with supporting commissioners citing “partisan infighting” and “contentious behavior” among current 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. State House Rep. Dave Belton, a Republican, sponsored House Bill 162, bringing the request before the General Assembly. The bill passed both chambers. Morgan County’s other delegate, State Sen. Burt Jones was “excused” from the vote on Feb. 16.

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 if all the appointments are decided by a majority Republican county commission board and therefore, Democrats will not be able to advocate for voting policies that matter to their constituents.

Current BOER members Helen Butler and Avery Jackson, the Democratic appointees, oppose the new county-controlled appointment system for the BOER.

“It’s taking control, and it doesn’t do anything to improve anything,” Butler said, who is also the executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. “It takes away the voices of a lot of people in the county from having input in how elections are run.”

Butler and Jackson opposed the bill, along with County Commissioner Donald Harris. Local groups also spoke out against the bill, including the Morgan County Democrats, the Morgan NAACP, and the Morgan County Ministers Union. Opponents fear policy decisions regarding polling place locations, election certifications, dropbox availability, weekend and early voting hours and voter eligibility challenges could all be adversely affected if one political party controls the election board.

However, the bill did have some local support, as the Morgan County GOP spoke in favor of the bill as well as a few former election board members, including David Moore. County Commissioner Ben Riden also spoke to the AJC about the election board controversy, pledging to appoint a non-partisan election board despite the Morgan County BOC being dominated by Republican representatives.

“The election board was fairly dysfunctional,” said Riden to the AJC earlier this year. “It was very polarized. Our whole purpose is to appoint a non-partisan board and not look at people as a political affiliation so they can work together.”

State Rep. Dave Belton supported the change and accused the current BOER board of being quarrelsome and inefficient.

“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.”

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 transparency and they don’t want us advocating for easy access to voting.”

County Manager Adam Mestres promised that all BOER members will not be judged by their political allegiances.

“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 Board of Commissioners will review applications for the five BOER seats and will vote on appointments later this month. New members will finish out the terms of the current BOER members beginning on July 1, 2021.

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