Chatham Democrats and GOP push for merger between boards of registrars and elections

Both board chairs warn that merging the two departments will not solve perceived problems

click to enlarge Signs point toward a merger between Chatham County's Board of Elections and Board of Registrars. - NICK ROBERTSON/CONNECT SAVANNAH
Nick Robertson/Connect Savannah
Signs point toward a merger between Chatham County's Board of Elections and Board of Registrars.
One could presume that activity would’ve died down for the Chatham County Board of Elections in the weeks following Georgia’s Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoff race, coming on the heels of a turbulent 2020 balloting cycle.

Such a presumption would be wrong. Since Jan. 5, the elections board has seen two members resign from the same seat, while the county’s longtime elections supervisor, Russell Bridges, retired before being rehired as a consultant. Now leaders from Chatham’s Democratic and Republican parties are pushing for the Board of Elections to be merged with the Board of Registrars, citing perceived problems with the county’s divided departments that oversee different aspects of every election.

Chatham County’s General Assembly delegation of state-level elected representatives is currently discussing the logistics of merging these two boards, according to Georgia House Rep. Ron Stephens of District 164, who chairs the Chatham delegation.

“We’re in the process now of trying to decide how it’s going to look,” Stephens said of the possible merger, adding that he’s seeking input from board members before the eight-member General Assembly delegation moves forward with the merger. “It’s our decision. We have to be careful, because we’ve got to live with that.”

And while talk of merging the two boards has circulated for years – Chatham being one of very few Georgia counties with separate departments for registrars and elections – the movement now has considerable momentum and bipartisan support, according to Stephens.

“If I had to guess, either next week or the week after, we’re going to have the final version” of what structure a merged Chatham County Board of Registrars and Elections would have, Stephens said. “We can really do anything we decide.”

However, the chairs of both boards are united in warning that a merger may not address complaints about Chatham County’s voting systems.

“It’s not necessary for us to merge,” said Board of Elections Chairman Tom Mahoney, asserting that Chatham’s divided system provides a mechanism for checks and balances. “There’s a thought that it would be streamlined if there was only one board. I really don’t think so.”

Board of Registrars Chairman Colin McRae agrees with Mahoney that the split boards keep each other in check, but he is more concerned about how a merger could impact staffing for both departments.

“We want to make sure that our very well-trained and tenured staff is looked after,” McRae said, adding that misconceptions about the roles of Chatham’s registrars and elections departments have led to many of the complaints against them. “Those shortcomings that people have identified, or think they have perceived, are not shortcomings at all.”

Responsibilities of the boards

Broadly speaking, Chatham’s Board of Registrars oversees registering voters and maintaining the voter rolls, organizing early voting, and mailing out absentee ballots, collecting them, and verifying voters’ signatures on them – one of the more controversial voting functions during the 2020 elections, when the pandemic led to a sharp rise in absentee balloting across the county and state.

Meanwhile, Chatham’s Board of Elections oversees county-level candidate-qualifying procedures and campaign-finance paperwork, as well as managing voting-day operations at precinct balloting sites and tabulating all votes collected before certifying the winners of local races.

“I’m aware there is confusion in the public about the responsibilities of the two boards,” Mahoney said. “Voters contact us a lot about things that are the Board of Registrars’ responsibility.”

But perhaps the most significant difference between the two boards is how they are composed. Four of the five Board of Elections members are elected positions – two Democrats and two Republicans, chosen every four years during their parties’ midterm-election primaries – and the winning board members select their chair.

On the other hand, Chatham County’s Superior Court Senior Judge appoints the five-member Board of Registrars from a list of names submitted by the Grand Jury for four-year terms, which McRae believes results in a nonpartisan board makeup that reflects the county’s demographics.

“A board in which you don’t know how they lean politically is one that engenders more trust,” McRae said, adding that anyone seeking to combine the two boards would have to very carefully consider whether its members should be elected or appointed. “The big question is, how do the individual board members get selected?”

“Feelings are intense on both sides of the aisle. We need to be there for the voters. ... If you’re going to change something, you sure want to make it better.”

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Back-to-back Board of Elections resignations

Because its members are chosen directly by party voters, Chatham’s Board of Elections is prone to partisan battles – and occasionally, party-affiliated board members end up being at the center of controversy.

Since 2016, Republican Board of Elections member Debbie Rauers was twice censured by her fellow board members for making public statements asserting financial wrongdoing by elections staff, and for interfering with election workers. Then during the 2020 election for the Chatham County Commission District 2 seat, Rauers played a central role in the controversial disqualification of Democratic candidate Tony Riley, resulting in Republican candidate Larry “Gator” Rivers winning the race essentially unopposed.

On Jan. 7, Rauers resigned from her Board of Elections seat. According to an alleged copy of her letter of resignation obtained by Connect Savannah, Rauers originally intended to resign on Dec. 19, stating that “the culture of the Board has dramatically changed.” The letter added that Chatham’s Republican leadership asked her to stay on through the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoff, hence why she waited until Jan. 7.

But allegations have surfaced that Rauers was involved in a hit-and-run incident near the Savannah Civic Center on Jan. 5, with a Savannah Police Department report from that incident characterizing the alleged offender as “a middle aged woman with shoulder length blond hair” who “was on the Board of Elections.”

The physical description given in the police report matches Rauers, who declined to comment for this article.

When a Board of Elections member resigns before their term concludes, the leadership of their party is entitled to choose a replacement. In mid-January, the Chatham County Republican Party selected Carry Smith to take over Rauers’ seat, according to CCRP First Vice Chair L. Carl Smith, Jr., and she was officially sworn in. Smith, a self-described political independent, conducted the research revealing Riley's ineligibility for the District 2 race, and provided that to Rauers, leading to Riley’s disqualification.

“They wanted somebody who has been in the fight,” Carry Smith said of the CCRP decision to choose her to represent Republicans on the Board of Elections. “That’s honorable. They actually wanted somebody that’s apolitical.”

But by Jan. 28, Carry Smith had resigned from the post as well, citing threats she’d received for her role in Riley’s disqualification, and a desire to avoid becoming a lightning rod for additional vitriol.

“I was looking at the community backlash, all the controversy that we had in the past year,” Carry Smith said. “We’re in a time when a lot of people don’t trust voting, and I didn’t want to be a part of the controversy.”

In an alleged copy of Carry Smith’s resignation letter obtained by Connect Savannah, she recommended that James Hall be appointed to fill the empty Board of Elections seat. During a Feb. 13 CCRP meeting, Carl Smith mentioned that Hall – a former leader of the Savannah Area Young Republicans – had been selected to replace Carry Smith.

“We have appointed James Hall,” Carl Smith said, adding that he is waiting for the Board of Elections to make the appointment official.

Republicans and Democrats agree on merger

According to Carl Smith, the biggest benefit of merging Chatham’s Board of Elections and Board of Registrars would be removing political considerations from oversight of the county’s elections.

“A lot of the politics need to be taken out of the Board of Elections,” Carl Smith said, adding that he believes the county’s current balloting-oversight structure is not transparent and thus diminishes confidence among Chatham voters. “There’s got to be a sense of professionalism and efficiency, and a desire to follow the law and make sure every legal vote is counted.”

Meanwhile, Chatham County Democratic Committee Chairman James “Jay” Jones also supports merging the two boards, as he believes a new voting-oversight body would likely result in a board makeup that more accurately reflects the county’s larger population of Democratic voters.

“I love the idea about the two boards merging,” Jones said, adding that he would like to see all members of a merged board chosen by voters in a nonpartisan election. “It takes out that whole backdrop of who gets to pick the chair. … It should be all nonpartisan, and it should be on the general-election ballot.”

Changes continue at the Board of Elections

Throughout the turmoil of January and early February, Mahoney has striven to keep Board of Elections business moving forward, although he admits that he “was puzzled by” the CCRP’s selection of Carry Smith to replace Rauers. Mahoney pledged that he will work with the Republicans to seat their selected replacement for Carry Smith.

“We’ll work with them on that appointment,” Mahoney said, adding that meanwhile the board is able to continue its work while remaining one member down. “We have a quorum and can continue to function.”

The Board of Elections is also experiencing another major change with the late-January announcement that Bridges would be retiring from his position at the end of February, to be replaced on an interim basis by Billy Wooten, who has previously overseen Chatham’s elections training.

While Stephens is eager to move forward with merging the Board of Elections with the registrars, he commended Mahoney’s leadership over what he called the “absolute chaos” engendered by the board’s current structure.

“Tom Mahoney ought to have a halo on his head,” Stephens said.

When the merger proposal came up during the Feb. 8 Board of Elections meeting, both Republican and Democratic members raised concerns about how it could be carried out. Republican member Marianne Heimes stated that any merger should wait until their duly elected terms conclude in spring of 2022.

“Feelings are intense on both sides of the aisle. We need to be there for the voters,” Heimes said, adding that any merger should be carried out with deliberation to produce a positive outcome. “If you’re going to change something, you sure want to make it better.”

Stephens agreed that it makes sense to let the current Board of Elections members’ terms run out before a merger with the registrars.

“I would hate to change somebody’s term,” Stephens said.

Board of Elections member Malinda Hodge, a Democrat, said during the Feb. 8 meeting that she fears institutional knowledge will be lost if the two boards are joined.

“If in fact our boards are merged, it will double our workload,” Hodge said, while encouraging the current board to remain vigilant about the merger’s proceedings. “I think it’s important that we do play an active role in what transpires.”

At the end of the Feb. 8 Board of Elections meeting, Mahoney announced that Bridges would continue to work with the department as a consultant to help navigate the uncertainty ahead.

“We really need that institutional knowledge in this transition, and I don’t know how long this transition is going to be,” Mahoney said.

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