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DeKalb legislator seeking to amend law to make it easier to hold special elections

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DeKalb legislator seeking to amend law to make it easier to hold special elections

Vote signs at the Decatur Recreation Center on Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

DeKalb County, GA — A special election will be held to fill the Districts 3 and 7 seats on the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners. A DeKalb legislator is seeking to make the process of holding special elections easier, so the county could hold the votes in May.

Larry Johnson and Lorraine Cochran-Johnson stepped down from the county commission earlier this month to run for county CEO. That now leaves about half of the county underrepresented on the commission, and it could be that way until early next year.

The DeKalb Board of Registrations and Elections set the special election for Nov. 5 during its March 18 meeting.

The special election for these seats couldn’t have been called before the vacancy was created. The timing of their qualifying for office created a vacancy after the cut-off date to call for a special election with the May primary.

According to Georgia state law, an election could have been called for in June if this had been an odd-numbered year. However, given that it is an even-numbered year, any election has to be placed on the primary election ballot in May or wait for the general election in November.

Under state law, the only way to avoid the “90-days prior” cut-off point is for the election to be “conducted completely separate and apart from such state-wide general primary or state-wide general election using different ballots or voting equipment, facilities, poll workers, and paperwork.”

State Rep. Saira Draper (D – Atlanta) added an amendment to House Bill 976 that would remove the 90-day notice requirement from some elections and allow them to be held earlier. Under this amendment, a special election could be called for sooner than 90 days prior to an upcoming election if there will not be any referendum questions on the ballot.

If there are also special questions for voters on the ballot, then the 90-day requirement would apply.

“What it would do is when we have a special election because of a vacancy that has come up, it would allow a county election office to have that special election without a 90-day notice in front of it,” Draper told the Senate Ethics Committee on March 21.

She added that currently, if a vacancy is created, and it’s less than 90 days before the next election, county election offices would have to decide between holding a separate and apart election or holding a special election at a later time.

“[For a separate and apart election] they have to use a new set of poll workers, they have to use a separate ballot for the special election, they have to use separate equipment for the special election,” Draper said. “Or if they can’t handle that administrative burden, they have to punt and hold that special election to fill that vacancy during that next election.”

“That would leave more than half of my county without representation for over nine months,” she added.

In DeKalb County, the two vacancies on the county commission leave Super District 7 residents with only one representative on the commission instead of two. In the area where Districts 3 and 7 overlap, those residents do not currently have representation on the county commission.

“This is a quick fix in the law that would allow people to have the representation that they’re entitled to,” Draper said.

The Senate engrossed HB 976 on March 26, meaning it cannot be further amended. The chamber also tabled the bill on Tuesday. The last day of the legislative session is Thursday, March 28.

Several amendments were made to HB 976 by the Senate Ethics Committee. The bill would do several things in addition to addressing special elections. The bill also states that a local registrar can uphold an eligibility challenge for reasons like a voter lists a nonresidential address like a post office box, a voter is registered in a different jurisdiction, or they obtain a homestead exemption in another county, according to the Georgia Recorder.

The bill would also allow individuals or are homeless or without a permanent address to list their county registrar’s office as their voter registration address, the Georgia Recorder reported.

Draper also discussed the bill in her newsletter on March 27. Here’s that section of the newsletter:

The residents in HD 90 responded to my call to action and it made a difference.

Last Monday, when the DeKalb Board of Elections and Registrations (BOE) met to certify the results of the Presidential Preference Primary and to take care of other business, they were greeted by a room full of angry residents from DeKalb Commission Districts 3 and 7.

Earlier this month, the commissioners for those districts resigned from their commissioner posts (which is constitutionally required since they are both running for DeKalb CEO). As a result, residents are down a voice on the DeKalb Board of Commissioners until those vacancies are filled.

The folks who are most impacted are the DeKalb residents who live in the area where District 3 and Super District 7 overlap– they have no County Commission representation at all right now.

Residents wanted the BOE to schedule a special election to fill those two vacancies on the earliest possible date: May 21. But because of a quirk in state law, the BOE members were forced to make a hard decision and set the special election for November.

A November election means half of DeKalb’s residents will be under-represented or have no representation at the county level for nine months (10 if there is a runoff!). That’s a long time to go without your representative on issues of code enforcement, public works, animal control, and much, much more.

After learning of the issue at one of my town halls, I got to work to try to figure out if there was anything I could do to get the special election held in May. My background in elections and law helped me see a solution, but I knew I had to act quickly: we were too close to the end of the legislative session to introduce a new bill, but there could be time to add an amendment to an existing bill…

I made the case to my GOP colleagues who control the flow of legislation at the Capitol. They understood the issue and said they were amenable to my proposal. Yet, for about two weeks, other issues (their issues) kept taking precedence, and I was told to wait.

But time was running out, and I knew we had to force the issue. That’s when I called on you to help.

Many of you heeded that call and reached out to Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns to ask that the Draper Amendment be added to moving legislation. And it worked. During the committee meeting last Thursday, Chairman Burns specifically said he heard from many HD 90 constituents. Thank you!

The committees voted unanimously to adopt the Draper Amendment. Check out the presentation here.

The legislation with the Draper Amendment language must pass by tomorrow, Thursday, the last day of session. Then it has to be signed by the Governor right away.

DeKalb will have to hold candidate qualifying right away. At least 2.5 days of qualifying is required under Georgia law, and I don’t think we have time for any additional days. Why the rush? Because the first vote-by-mail ballots go out in early April.

So there are many things that have to happen – and have to happen quickly – before the elections can be moved to May.

Is it a long shot? Maybe. Are the voices of over half a million DeKalb residents worth fighting for? Absolutely.

Democracy is fundamental.

Writer Jaedon Mason contributed to this story.

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