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Editorial: Release the results of the District 2 County Commission race. Now.

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Editorial: Release the results of the District 2 County Commission race. Now.

A DeKalb Elections worker seals a box of recounted ballots on Saturday, May 28, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This editorial has been updated. 

We had a primary election in DeKalb County, Ga. on May 24.

Other than the usual hiccups, it seemed to go smoothly. Then Michelle Long Spears, a candidate in the Democratic primary for DeKalb County Commission District 2, noticed some odd results at precincts. Some precincts showed zero votes for her, including the one she voted at with her husband. On Election Night, she came in third behind Marshall Orson and Lauren Alexander and did not advance to the June 21 runoff.

That election result could change due to a hand count of the ballots completed at 12:30 a.m. on May 31. But, for reasons that remain a mystery, DeKalb County election officials have spent inordinate amounts of time and effort hiding that result from us.

I have never, in more than a decade of doing community reporting and covering elections, seen any government refuse to release preliminary election results. It just doesn’t happen.

DeKalb County election officials keep moving the goalposts on when they will provide this information. They say they can’t release the result of the hand count because they aren’t confident in the accuracy of the result.

Respectfully, the county’s position on this is complete and utter BS. There is no reputable democracy on earth where the preliminary result of an election would be withheld from the public. Aside from being grossly unfair to all candidates involved, it undermines the confidence in the results of those elections. And confidence in our elections already is under assault by a people who gain power by undermining our civic institutions.

Do I think something nefarious is going on with our county elections? Based on everything I have seen to date, no.

Do I think something stupid has occurred due to human error and county elections officials are more worried about covering their asses than reassuring the public about the integrity of this election? Yep.

The county likely is more afraid of the inevitable litigation than they are about public perception. Governments get sued every day. That’s a known risk of public service. Usually, the defendants write a check, make a few changes and everyone goes on their merry way. Destroying public trust in an election isn’t something you can fix by paying someone off. If people feel they can’t resolve their disagreements at the ballot box, things can get problematic quickly.

No, I don’t think we’re going to be rioting in the streets about the results of the District 2 DeKalb County Commission race. The stakes are too low. Considering DeKalb County’s importance in metro Atlanta’s Blue Wall of Democratic voters, the stakes will get higher in the midterms and even higher in the subsequent presidential election. Hiding election results now is surely going to come back to haunt us in a future election.

Obviously, something was screwy with the May 24 primary. The snafu appears to have occurred because a candidate, Don Broussard, dropped out of the race which caused a mistake in programming the precinct scanners, leading to inaccurate vote counts. The Georgia Secretary of State’s office said the text of one Republican Party question was not properly appearing during early voting. Five precincts in DeKalb were redistricted into the county commission District 2 race, but those precincts had not been updated to reflect that change.

Ideally, logic and accuracy testing would have caught any malfunctions that arose because of the changes made to address these issues.

We don’t know if the county ran all the necessary logic and accuracy tests, or what those tests showed. There are many things we don’t know about this election, besides the results.

Initially, county elections officials said the discrepancy in the precinct totals was due to a “display error.” I fully admit to wanting that to be the answer, mainly because the simplest explanation is usually the correct one and elections have conspiracy theorists circling them like sharks. The last thing I want is for voters to lose faith in our electoral process. It’s a core value for Decaturish. Good government is good for everyone, and good government requires participation by everyone in free and fair elections.

Following the events of the past weekend, my faith in our local electoral process is a little shaken. Seeing first-hand how DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections operates was an eye-opener.

After the “display error” claim fell by the wayside, our reporting team watched an embarrassing spectacle unfold. While the claims of irregularities surfaced quickly after the election, our county elections officials didn’t attempt to do another count until Saturday. At the time, it was only a machine count. The machines failed to produce a result DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections Executive Director Keisha Smith and other officials found reassuring. We don’t know, exactly, what they saw that caused them to suspend attempts to do a machine count on Saturday.

On Sunday, I told county election spokesperson Erik Burton what I’ve been saying to everyone since this started: the longer this question about the result lingers, the more doubts people will have about the outcome of the election. Why, I asked, had the county not simply started a hand count of the paper ballots? I wasn’t the only observer present who was saying this.

Within an hour, the county quickly pivoted to a hand count of paper ballots. The paper ballots are the fail-safe of our elections here in Georgia. Machines and humans can err. The paper ballots are our receipts in case anything is in doubt. Surely, I thought, once this hand count is done we’ll have an answer quickly. The counting took two days. County officials were weirdly passive-aggressive throughout the process. At first, on Sunday, we were told no one could take photos of the hand count. Then we were told the press could take photos, but not observers. And we could only take photos of the people counting the ballots, but not the ballots themselves.

An election worker on Sunday told Marilyn Marks, with the Coalition for Good Governance, not to send text messages (huh?) and on Monday she was threatened with arrest for taking a photo of the room where teams were counting ballots. The county insists the public has no legal right to photograph the individual ballots, even though the Coalition has a federal judge’s order in their favor on this. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, to its credit, had its attorneys raise hell about the situation. Why is all this important? Well, if observers had been allowed to take photos of the ballots, we might have an inkling of whether the hand count changed the outcome. Based on everything we’ve seen so far, DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections clearly does not want that to happen. Not yet, anyway.

At the end of Monday night, I waited in a giant, humid warehouse until 2 a.m. I watched election officials busily entering the data into what, I assume, were spreadsheets on a computer.

Smith said the results wouldn’t be ready until the morning, so I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. And then the noon Elections Board meeting came, and we still didn’t have the results. And then the 4:30 p.m. Elections Board meeting came, there were no results and the board decided to miss the state’s deadline for certifying the election. Smith said she needs until Friday at 5 p.m. to produce the results of the hand count and determine exactly what happened. In my experience, Friday at 5 p.m. is when you drop some news you hope no one will hear.

It’s time for county election officials to stop playing these games and tell voters exactly what happened, to the best of their ability.

The solution to this controversy is simple: Smith and the Elections Board have a result of the hand count. Whether it’s a result they want to certify is another matter. They need to release that result, immediately, and provide an explanation about why they think the result is inaccurate. That’s it. That will put so much of this nonsense to rest.

What will happen if they keep dragging things out? Take a look at my inbox. I’m hearing from more and more candidates who didn’t like the results of their elections. Were all of DeKalb’s May 24 election results incorrectly reported? I doubt it.

But DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections is laying down fertile soil for conspiracy theories about our elections to take root and grow.

I know that’s not Smith’s intention. I know that’s not the Elections Board’s intention, but that’s what they’re inviting with their litigation-averse approach to election transparency.

The lawsuits are coming. They’ll be dealt with in time. They can’t be our primary concern here. It’s time for the DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections office to release the results of the hand count in the District 2 election. Delaying the release of this information will not increase public confidence in its accuracy.

Decaturish has filed a formal records request for this information and has asked the county’s legal team to expedite our request. The county needs to either release this information or provide a legal basis for withholding it. We hope other media organizations will join us.

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