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DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections receives $2 million excellence grant

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DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections receives $2 million excellence grant

L to R Executive Director Keisha Smith, Board Chair Dele Lowman Smith, Vice Chair Nancy Jester, Board Member Susan Mother, Board Member Anthony Lewis, Board Member Karli Swift. Photo by Sara Amis

DeKalb County, GA — Executive Director Keisha Smith reported at the DeKalb Board of Elections meeting on Jan. 27 that the DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections office had been designated a Center for Election Excellence by the newly formed US Alliance for Election Excellence. 

The program, which was announced by the Center for Civic Tech and Civic Life in April 2022, is intended to create a support network for election departments and is accompanied by a grant scaled to the size of the office receiving it. DeKalb’s grant is $2 million and was formally accepted by county commissioners at their last meeting. 

DeKalb is one of only 16 members of the program’s original cohort, and is the only designee selected in Georgia.

“I’m excited about this. It’s kind of a nerdy big deal,” said Board of Elections Chair Dele Lowman Smith. Lowman Smith said that since election offices are not allowed to receive grants directly, the lengthy application process was led by the county’s finance department.

Lowman Smith says the money will be put to good use. “This assists us in our plan moving forward to modernize and create a really voter-centric election process. There is a great deal of work yet to be done,” said Lowman Smith.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to engage with the best and the brightest working on elections across the country,” said Keisha Smith

Smith said that she has requested $11.5 million for her department in DeKalb County’s proposed 2023 budget. Smith mentioned recent hires including Dwayne Daniel as an administrative services manager to improve budgeting and planning, and added that the department plans to hire more positions and expand voter education programs.

In other business:

— Assistant County Attorney Irene Vander Els offered an update to the board on this year’s legislative session, which opened Jan. 9.  HB17 would require that drop boxes be locked when not available for use and enhance chain of custody. HB 48 would provide for non-partisan election of the district attorney and solicitor for state court. HR18 is a resolution to set up an independent commission for redistricting. HR42 would make changes in ways that school superintendents are elected. Both of the resolutions would require additional legislation to be enacted.

Among the pre-filed bills that have not yet been introduced, one would expand runoff election days, and another would require the Secretary of State’s office to create a system by which visually impaired voters can use their own electronic devices.

Board member Karli Swift asked if the board has a lobbyist, or has positions for or against any of the bills.

Lowman Smith said that she would like a discussion among the board about any issues they want to address with the DeKalb legislative delegation.

Board member Nancy Jester said that the county has a lobbyist and the board could work through them. Jester added that the board’s advocacy should be constrained to the nuts and bolts of how elections actually work.

“Weighing in on things like whether an election itself should be nonpartisan, or weighing in on how redistricting is done, starts to move over into the purely political realm. I don’t want to participate in that discussion as this board because we’re supposed to be the administers of the election,” said Jester.

Board member Susan Motter agreed, saying, “Anything to do with process, procedure, timing and anything to do with what our staff needs to carry out an election fairly and effectively is fair game.”

Motter added that both large and small counties with majorities on both sides of the political spectrum had struggled with how to pull off the 2022 runoff election.

Both Swift and board member Anthony Lewis agreed. Swift asked whether the board had ever taken a position on what was needed to make an election more efficient. 

Lowman Smith responded that most of the previous board had voted to take a position against SB 202, and had sent a letter to the legislature to that effect.

“Operations, administration, and voter access are within our purview and areas of responsibility,” said Lowman Smith, adding that she felt that proactively addressing issues from the position of having administered an election would be a useful insight for elected officials. 

Lowman Smith said that she felt that the DeKalb board could also do more in coordination with the state board of elections.

“They are our counterpart, just as the Secretary of State is the DeKalb elections office counterpart,” said Lowman Smith.

— The board discussed how to improve online participation in meetings. Swift pointed out that emailed comments sent after a meeting begins are added to the record, but not actually read in the meeting.

Both Lewis and Motter said they would like to see more flexibility for board members to attend remotely, because of illness or other reasons. Motter said that there are limits on how often an individual board member can do so, but that the law allows it so long as a quorum is physically present.

Jester said that she would like the county attorneys to look at the question of online participation as broadly as possible. Jester added that the purpose of holding meetings in person was the opportunity for interaction, but that she felt remote meetings maximized public participation.

Lowman Smith said that she would also like to hear from the IT department about the technical aspects of providing more access to remote participation.

— While debriefing the 2022 election was on the meeting agenda, Keisha Smith said that her office was still in the process of preparing a briefing. The board plans to hold a separate called meeting in a location with good public access, so that the political parties can offer their own perspectives along with other interested parties. 

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