If it ain’t broke, don’t merge it

Chatham County Board of Elections member Marianne Heimes on the push to merge her department with the Board of Registrars

After the 2020 November election and the 2021 January election, election officials breathed a well-deserved sigh of relief. In spite of audits and recounts and the largest number of voters ever served, Chatham County came through with flying colors.

At least it seemed so to us. We were still burning from the many disasters of the June election. Again a record vote, but this time with more absentee ballots than ever before, a raging pandemic, and new machines that were bigger, heavier, and in the beginning at least more complicated than those reliable old Diebolds which served us for 20 years. Only two models behind that, Chatham County residents had voted on those lovely old machines with the curtain that you pulled to close yourself in and to let yourself out. And at the end of the day, poll workers had to fill in pages of statistics by hand.

What happened? Well, I guess most importantly, voters happened. The voter rolls grew steadily, and then in 2018, moved by Stacey Abrams, they exploded. That was another disaster for us − no one anticipated the turnout that occurred, although in hindsight perhaps we should have.

But putting an election together is a little more complicated than you might think. There is seldom just one ballot. Ballots need to be tailored to different precincts and different parties, which can mean sometimes 50 or more different ballots. We send our lists up to Atlanta, and they return the ballots and then we “proof” them. There was a mistake made on one ballot recently, which was most regrettable, but to my knowledge it was the only such mistake made in recent local elections history.

There are two separate boards in Chatham County which perform different duties − the Board of Registrars and the Board of Elections. We are housed in the same building, so exchange between the two boards is easy − open one door and go in the one across the hall. As the number of voters grow and elections become even more complex, a new building must be considered. Even the storage of the new machines was stressful, as they took up about one-third more space that the old ones, and our warehouse looked like a big stuffed mushroom.

"So what will consolidation of the boards accomplish? Doubtful there will be a budget savings. Surely there will be confusion."

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And the Chatham Commission came to our help, renting a new warehouse. During the elections it was used for absentee-ballot counting; now it is being prepared for storage of the new Dominion machines (which worked for us accurately, with both the manual and machine recounts being accurate).

So what was the reward for the hardworking staff and hundreds of volunteers? The local political parties decided the boards must be merged and, of course, reconfigured. Right now our board is elected, with two Democrats and two Republicans who choose the chair. For the most part the board acts in a nonpartisan way, especially as it pertains to elections. The Board of Registrars is appointed by judges, but it seems to be nonpartisan as well. So what will consolidation of the boards accomplish? Doubtful there will be a budget savings. Surely there will be confusion.

You do not know how much is required of both bodies unless you are on them, and once elected or appointed it takes a very long time to really understand the mechanics of putting on an election. Just working at a polling site or on absentee ballots definitely does not give you the full picture.

Since both boards have spent time learning the ropes − and the last two elections, although the largest ever, went well − I would like to propose another possibility. In the past our boards have met jointly a few times, but it means an extra meeting for that month. However I believe we do realize that we have reached a point where the boards need to meet jointly more often. Not every month, but perhaps quarterly. Our two board chairs have a good rapport, and do not hesitate to call the other if a question or problem arises.

Discussion on merging the boards is not new, it pops up from time to time. This seems like the worst time possible − staff of both entities is up to snuff on how to organize an election. We also have a few months to work to make things better, as we have no election until November. If that is a disaster, the Legislators can again consider the merger and pass it before our board is “primaried” in May of 2022. As we are elected officials, it is a little more difficult to send us packing. Then the new board can try to get ready for the next big election in November of 2022.

Or, the old board can continue.

I think it would be wiser not to rush into any merger right now − there will be many new election laws which will need to be added to current board knowledge, in addition to the many of which they are already aware. The current legislators might also give some thought as to why the legislators who enabled the board in this manner 47 years ago configured the Chatham County Board of Elections like they did. Just because we are “different” from other election boards doesn’t mean we are worse − it just might mean we are better!

Sayings like “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” come to mind. Yes, we are one of Georgia’s only Board of Elections that is elected, but you can look at some of the larger counties with board members who are appointed, and realize they had some pretty big problems. One county recently fired their director, but the reason given was for mistakes in 2017-18. One more saying, if you don’t mind: “Be careful what you wish for.”

So. No known cost savings. No accumulated knowledge. No true need, as the last two elections were our biggest ever and very successful. Ability for information-sharing to be done with better communication between boards.

At the end of the day, our Elections Board and the Registrars Board wants just one thing: to make sure that every legal voter can vote, and to make that voting experience as problem-free as possible.

It ain’t broke. cs

Marianne Heimes is a two-term Republican member of the Chatham County Board of Elections.

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