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DeKalb County attorney defends elections grant after Kelly Loeffler calls for investigation

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DeKalb County attorney defends elections grant after Kelly Loeffler calls for investigation

Kelly Loeffler. Image obtained via https://www.loeffler.senate.gov

DeKalb County, GA — Kelly Loeffler, the former Republican senator from Georgia and current chair of Greater Georgia, recently called for an investigation into a grant received by the DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections office. Loeffler asserted that in seeking the grant, DeKalb County is skirting a law intended to prevent outside influence on elections.

The $2 million grant was awarded by the US Alliance for Election Excellence and was formally accepted by the DeKalb county commission at their January meeting.

Anthony Lewis, one of two Republican appointees to the DeKalb Board of Elections, asked for clarification of the grant application process from Executive Director Keisha Smith.

County Attorney Viviane Ernstes interjected, saying that because the elections department did not participate in the application process, Smith was not the appropriate source for information.

“Ms. Smith did not undergo that process. The grant process was undertaken by the county finance department and was led by [chief operating officer Zach] Williams and the deputy chief financial officer, Preston Stevens,” said Ernstes.

Lewis said that he had received several inquiries and Freedom of Information Act requests from the public and wanted clarity on how to respond.

Ernstes said that Lewis could direct questions to Williams and that her staff was helping to respond with appropriate documents to FOIA requests.

Ernstes confirmed that her staff had reviewed the grant for compliance with the law. “It would be inappropriate for me to give actual legal advice in a public meeting, but I and my staff reviewed the process and reviewed the application and the grant agreement,” Ernstes said.

“I have looked at it and I believe that it is legally viable, legally defensible,” Ernstes added.

Board member Karli Swift said that Lewis should refer people to the law’s wording. “They can read in black and white what the law actually says and that it allows funding through the commission,” said Swift.

Swift added that pointing to the correct section of SB 202 would refute intimations that the grant was done improperly or illegally. “That is not the case,” said Swift.

Lewis responded that the people sending him inquiries feel they fully understand the law. “Their interpretation may be different,” said Lewis.

In other business:

— Executive Director Smith reported to the board that DeKalb has 578,856 registered voters, with 515,774 considered active.

After an election-related pause, the county has since processed 12,000 registrations. Smith said that the department is recruiting for vacant positions, reviewing salaries and compensation structures in order to attract and retain the best staff possible and prepare for the 2024 election.

— The elections department will be presenting a budget debrief to the county operations committee on Feb. 21. Smith said she would like to add a debrief for the board.

— In her legislative update, Assistant County Attorney Irene Vander Els said that the legislature was busy considering laws about elections. In addition to HB 17, which requires that drop boxes be locked when not in use, other bills would allow poll workers to work in any county as long as they are Georgia residents, allow visually impaired voters to use their own assistive technology, and make Election Day a state holiday. Instant run-offs are being considered for municipal elections, and two bills would make applications for absentee ballots automatically apply to subsequent elections.

Board chair Dele Lowman Smith said that she would like to see more discussion of what is appropriate for the legislature to decide versus the state board of elections. Lowman Smith expressed concern that too many laws governing procedures would likely become unwieldy and difficult to change.

“Procedures need to be adjusted when necessary, but laws are meant to be much more stable,” said Lowman Smith.

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