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DeKalb Board of Elections members blast ‘unfunded mandates’ coming from Legislature

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DeKalb Board of Elections members blast ‘unfunded mandates’ coming from Legislature

L to R, Assistant County Attorney Irene Vander Els, Department of Voter Registration and Elections Executive Director Keisha Smith. Photo by Sara Amis

Decatur, GA — At a special called meeting on March 1, three members of the Board of Voter Registration and Elections had criticisms for the flurry of legislation past and present coming from the state Legislature, bills aimed at changing how counties conduct elections and how departments can be funded. 

Board Chair Dele Lowman Smith asked for an update on pending legislation from Assistant County Attorney Irene Vander Els.

Vander Els said that two bills, Senate Bill 221 and 222 were making progress in the state senate. 

SB 221 creates a citizenship requirement for poll workers, modifies requirements for membership on performance review panels, limits grant funding and gifts for election administration, reduces the number of voting machines required at each polling location, and in a recent amendment bans drop boxes entirely. SB 222 would also regulate grant funding and gifts for election administration.

Lowman Smith said that she had wanted to speak to a senate ethics committee hearing about SB 222, which would prohibit outside grant funding.

“Even within that hearing and before that hearing, it was clearly targeted at DeKalb County, not just by the county name but by my name,” Lowman Smith said.

Lowman Smith said that she had been told that she would have an opportunity to speak to the committee, but the decision was made to not allow comments from those attending remotely.

Lowman Smith said that she wanted an opportunity to get on the record about the potential impact of SB 222, and did not mince words about her impressions of the hearing.

“There was clearly a complete lack of understanding with regard to how county budgets work, how grant funding works, where grant money comes from, and the fact that it is a standard process,” Lowman Smith said. Based on her experience working as an administrator for two counties, a city and three states, Lowman Smith said, it’s extremely common for local governments to seek outside funding. 

Lowman Smith was equally scathing about what she described as meddling in county operations via legislation, and the legislators’ grasp of their own bills.

“The sponsors of the bills had no idea what the bills that they were sponsoring even meant. They couldn’t answer basic questions about the content of the bills, the impact of those bills on elections administration, what the existing requirements are, what our existing technology even does or is capable of, or what any of it costs,” Lowman Smith said. 

Board member Susan Motter pointed out that the state elections board has not yet been able to provide rules for carrying out last year’s SB 202, partially because of lack of funding. Motter said that the additional processes mandated by the bills also mean additional staff hours and a host of additional costs that should be funded by the state for all counties.

Motter added that regardless of the dominant political party in each county, they were all struggling with additional processes required by SB 202, staffing issues, and funding.

“Firefly, the communications channel used by all of the election officials throughout the state of Georgia, at times has read like a group therapy session,” Motter said.

Board member Karli Swift said that there is no fiscal note estimating the financial impact of the two bills from the state. 

“SB 221 has been pitched as a cleanup bill, but it really doesn’t do anything to make elections safer. What it does do is create another string of unfunded mandates,” Swift said.

Swift added that the bill was based on misinformation and lacked consideration of possible unintended consequences, such as challenges to the votes of students who attend college out of state.  

“It legislates intimidation and harassment and is based on a lie that there was fraud,” Swift said.

Lowman Swift along with Swift pointed out that any additional processes, along with the improvements suggested in feedback about the 2022 elections, must be paid for, and that the burden would be carried by county taxpayers.

“It’s pushing the responsibility from the state legislators to county commissioners who are going to have to raise your millage rates,” Lowman Smith said.

“I don’t think anyone in this room wants to pay more taxes,” Swift said.

Lowman Swift asked if board members were willing to try to reach consensus about legislative priorities and what, if anything, to convey to state legislators, especially about funding elections.

“At the very least, I would like for us to agree to ask the legislature for a continuous commitment to fund elections by the state,” Lowman Smith said.

Board member Anthony Lewis said that he was cautious about speaking to lawmakers as appointed, volunteer board members, but was not opposed to creating a list of priorities.

Board member Nancy Jester said that she was open to the funding discussion, but felt that some requirements did not need funding and also that funds could come from elsewhere in the county budget.

The board plans to add the discussion to the agenda of their next meeting. 

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