Athens News Matters: District 2 Special Election Creates Major Headache for Election Officials
UPDATE: The Board of Elections will make a final decision on Tuesday, September 20 at 4:30PM.
Clarke County Republican Party Chairman Gordon Rhoden likely raised a few eyebrows at a meeting of the Board of Elections on Tuesday, when he suggested calling in Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight Action to investigate an election.
“Speaking as the chairman of the Republican Party, maybe Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight Georgia needs to be called to come and defend the people in District 2,” Rhoden told members of the Clarke County Board of Elections. “If they are concerned about disenfranchising people to vote, the people in District 2 are being disenfranchised.”
Rhoden was speaking tongue-in-cheek, but he was serious in his allegations of disenfranchisement.
Members of the Clarke County Board of Elections got an earful from about a dozen community members like Rhoden about the now-open seat representing Athens-Clarke County District 2. However, the board postponed until next week a final decision on the details of a special election to fill the position.
The vacancy, caused by the recent resignation of Mariah Parker, creates a complex issue for elections officials because of two factors – who should vote in a special election, and when they should vote.
Redistricting creates chaos around who should vote
Because Athens-Clarke County’s commission districts were radically redrawn by the Georgia General Assembly this year, the lines for District 2 have changed significantly, raising the key question of whether voters in the old District 2, represented by Parker, should vote for their replacement, or whether the choice should be up to an almost entirely different group of voters in the new District 2.
Part of the problem is a lack of clarity in the law.
“The elections [for Commission district 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9] that took place in May were done under the new districts,” explained Blake Aued, news editor of Flagpole Magazine. “When the new commissioners are seated in January, they'll represent their new districts. But because this is a special election, it's unclear in the law whether it will be conducted under the new lines or the old lines.”
Supporters of an election using the old lines say that using the new district would leave residents of the former District 2 unrepresented for several months.
That isn’t entirely accurate, however. Much of the old District 2 is now included in the new District 3. Those voters had an opportunity to vote for a commissioner in May, and will be represented by Tiffany Taylor beginning in January.
There are some voters who would be functionally left without a representative on the commission, however – voters in the new District 2. Many of those voters were moved into District 2 from Districts 3 and 5, meaning they didn’t vote for a commission candidate in May, and won’t be able to do so until May of 2024.
Beyond the question of determining who should decide the election, county staffers say that using the old lines would create a logistical nightmare and the possibility of significant errors. County Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee briefed Board of Elections members earlier this week.
“If the board approves, conducting the election in November and using District 2 boundary lines - what was used prior to redistricting - there is no easy way for us administratively to identify voters who were in commission District 2,” Sosebee told elections board members.
Sosebee said that’s because all of ACC’s voters are now in the database in their new commission districts. She said there was a way to rebuild the old District 2 voter list, but it would have to be rebuilt manually, and that could cause errors.
“There will be voters who [aren’t] on the list that should be on the list, and there will be voters who shouldn't be on the list and are,” Sosebee said.
And problems at the polls are more than just a hassle for voters and a headache for elections workers. Rocky Raffle is the chair of the Clarke County Board of Elections.
“As soon as a mistake happens, then there goes confidence in the election,” said Clarke County Board of Elections Chair Rocky Raffle. “And there goes opening the door to a whole other set of problems that we don't want to have.”
Looming deadlines complicate election scheduling
There’s also the question of when to hold the election. It seems obvious that, with a general election coming up on November 8, the easiest solution would be to simply add the special election onto the ballot.
But Rocky Raffle says there’s nothing simple about this special election.
“There's a lot of just many, many administrative, operational pieces that just complicate this,” Raffle said.
In the case of District 2, in order to hold the special election on Election Day, board members would hold candidate qualifying September 26 – 28, giving candidates just a few weeks to jumpstart their campaigns and take their messages to the voters in an already-saturated political ecosystem.
The short timeline is one thing, but there’s also a legal complication, according to elections officials. Clarke County could hold the special election on November 8, but it would have to be a separate election. That means, separate elections workers, separate voting machines – and separate lines for voters to stand in.
Last week, Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz urged the Board of Elections to wait until March to hold the special election in March, rather than on November 8th. In an email to board members, Girtz said that a March election would provide “absolute legal clarity” about which district lines to use and would give candidates more time to make their case to the voters. That’s a suggestion that Raffle says he would take seriously.
On Thursday, ACC Commissioners passed a resolution 7 – 0 to urge the elections board to use the March date.
“Speaking as a member not as the Chair, I can speak for myself that that is something that I would take into consideration in making our decision,” Raffle said.
After lengthy discussion with elections staffers, the Board of Elections decided to wait to make a final decision. They will make the final call at a special called meeting on Tuesday, September 20 at 4:30PM.