Editorial: Proposed changes to the electoral board must be considered by the public
The Hall County Commission Council and the County Election Board clashed for the second round in what appears to be an ongoing battle for control of the voting process in the county.
Earlier this year, the commission challenged the electoral board over responsibility for overseeing the county electoral officer. The chief electoral officer has traditionally reported to the board of elections; the county felt the position should fall under the county administrator’s office.
The electoral board ended up suing the county commission on the matter, and ultimately a settlement negotiated last spring left oversight responsibility, including the power to hire and fire, to the electoral council.
Now the commission has taken a different direction in questioning the role of the electoral council, having decided that the current composition of the council is unconstitutional and asking the county legislative delegation to pass changes that would place the electoral management body under the direct control of the elected commission.
Currently, the five-member council includes two representatives appointed by the local Republican Party, two appointed by the local Democratic Party, and a chairman appointed by the county commission. Based on a ruling in a DeKalb County case involving that county’s ethics committee, Hall County government attorneys have determined that the current electoral council structure is unconstitutional and that the county commission should be responsible for appointing all its members.
The county has asked the local legislative delegation to change the structure of the council so that it conforms, in the county’s legal opinion, to the state constitution. The fact that he did so apparently surprised the electoral council, with whom the county had not discussed the need for changes.
The electoral council on Tuesday asked the county to approve funds to hire an external legal advisor to respond to the county’s position and present its own case to the legislative delegation. As a testament to the complex relationship between the elements of local governments, the electoral board must have the approval of the commission to hire its own legal advisor to defend itself against the county prosecutor.
Prior to Tuesday’s Board of Elections meeting, there had been no public discussion of the county’s plans, so it’s difficult to have an informed opinion on what happened to get us to this point.
The DeKalb County case cited involved an ethics committee with members appointed by outside groups in addition to the county government. The courts have ruled that a body with governmental powers cannot be appointed by non-governmental agencies, as this cedes the power of government to those who are not responsible to elected officials.
The problem with court decisions, however, is that different legal experts may have different opinions on what they mean and how they should be applied. Hall County attorneys believe the case means that county political parties cannot appoint electoral council members and that it must be a function of elected officials on the county commission.
Others have different legal opinions on the applicability of the case, which is why the electoral council requested funds to hire its own lawyer. All over Georgia, election councils are being set up with members appointed by local political parties, so if the case applies to the local council, others statewide will also need to be changed.
Whether the DeKalb case applies here and what needs to be done constitutionally is a question for lawyers and the courts to resolve. To this end, the county commission should approve funding for the electoral council to hire an outside lawyer so that both sides of the argument can be presented and considered.
The county’s proposed changes would require local political parties to each submit a list of seven names to the county commission, which in turn would select two from the list to sit on the board. If none of the proposed names are deemed nominable, the committee could request another list of seven.