Bills that would have reformed the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections, as well as given county commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson a raise, were defeated in Georgia House of Representatives last week after they were put on a Gwinnett-specific local calendar.
The rejection of the bill to reconstitute the elections board, to give local elected officials a say in who sits on the board, means the board’s format will likely remain as is until at least the 2023 legislative session, said state Rep. Sam Park, who authored the bill and is the Gwinnett Legislative Delegation’s chairman. The rejection, on a 97-70 party line vote on March 22, is significant because it came during a legislative session where the GOP-controlled Georgia General Assembly passed elections board reconstitution bills in several Republican-leaning counties.
It also came days before the General Assembly passed a controversial omnibus elections reform bill that, among other things, allows the legislature to take over local elections boards that legislators deem to be mismanaging their elections.
“It’s very disappointing and frustrating,” Park said. “I think the perfect word that comes to mind is hypocrisy.”
Under the format that had been proposed by Park’s elections board reconstitution bill, the Republican and Democratic parties in Gwinnett would have each submitted a slate of five nominees for consideration for seats on the board to county commissioners.
The Board of Commissioners would have then chosen two representatives from each party and had the ability to chose anyone they wanted, from any political party, to fill a fifth seat on the board.
The heads of the Gwinnett Republican and Democratic parties currently each get to appoint two members to the elections board and those four members chose a fifth member. Calls for changing that, however, began after the Daily Post reported that board Chairwoman Alice O’Lenick told members of the Gwinnett GOP in January that election laws in Georgia should be changed so Republicans “at least have a shot at winning.”
Park said the format was similar to one that the House approved this session for Pickens County, which former President Donald Trump won with 82% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election.
Gwinnett, on the other hand, swung toward President Joe Biden in the election.
“Of course, these partisan takeovers of boards of elections were supported by Republican members of our (Gwinnett) delegation as well,” Park said. “But, yet when it came time to reconstitute the Gwinnett Board of Elections to ensure that there was more direct accountability of our board members to the people — instead of having political parties appoint them directly, have elected officials appoint them directly — not only was it rejected, they isolated all of our bills ... and they killed them.”
State Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, said there were concerns about giving the county commission — which became made up entirely of Democrats after the 2020 elections — the ability to choose the fifth member of the elections board.
Allowing the commissioners to appoint a member of the elections board would make the elections board partisan, the Dacula lawmaker said.
“I’ve been very upfront with my concern that the Gwinnett County Elections Board currently picks its fifth member of the other four partisan members and the Democrat-led local delegation decided to change that in their proposal to reconstitute the elections board,” Efstration said.
“In their proposal, the fifth member would be designated by the county commission, which is currently comprised of all Democrat members. All five members are Democrats. My belief is that the elections board — any partisanship should be even. It should be a bipartisan collaborative effort to ensure that elections are accessible and voters are able to vote without issue.”
There is no standard format for the makeup of county elections boards in Georgia.
In Cobb County, for example, the political parties get one appointment to the elections board while the county commission chairwoman gets to appoint someone and the Cobb County legislative delegation gets to appoint two members.
In Clayton County, each district commissioner on the Board of Commissioners, as well as the chairman, gets to appoint a member of the elections board.
In Fulton County, the Board of Commissioners picks the elections board’s chairperson while the heads of the Republican and Democratic parties each pick two members.
In Dougherty County, the county commission, the city of Albany, the local Republican Party and the local Democratic Party each get one appointment and those members then chose a fifth member.
Meanwhile, the defeat of a bill to raise Hendrickson’s salary does not mean that issue is dead. Georgia law allows two methods for raising a commissioner’s salary: the legislature can do it, or the Board of Commissioners can vote to do it.
Efstration said there were concerns among some members of delegation that Hendrickson’s salary was being raised right after she took office.
“When she ran, she knew what the salary was and potential candidates may not have qualified because of knowing the salary (for the position),” Efstration said.
It is unclear where the decision to create a Gwinnett-specific local calendar was made, however. A local calendar is a collection of local legislation bills that put together for a single vote by a chamber in the General Assembly. These bills are designed to deal with an issue in a specific community with bills from multiple cities and counties normally put together on the same calendar.
“I’ve never seen them do that to a local delegation before,” Park said.
Efstration, who sits on the House Rules Committee, said that committee does not create local calendars that appear before the full House each legislative day and that it was his understanding Park wanted the bills grouped together.
Park, however, said he had requested the bills be moved to the next day’s local calendar so the Gwinnett bills could be voted on with legislation dealing with other counties, but was told that would not be possible.
Gwinnett’s legislative delegation was split along party lines in the vote on the county-specific local calendar.
Park, as well as Reps. Karen Bennett, D-Stone Mountain; Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn; Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta; Shelly Hutchinson, D-Snellville; Gregg Kennard, D-Lawrenceville; Marvin Lim, D-Norcross; Pedro Marin, D-Duluth; Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville; Donna McCleod, D-Lawrenceville; Rebecca Mitchell, D-Snellville; and Beth Moore, D-Peachtree Corners, voted in favor of the Gwinnett local calendar’s passage.
Efstration, as well as Reps. Tim Barr, R-Lawrenceville; Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee; and Tom Kirby, R-Loganville, voted against the calendar.
State Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, was labeled as a “No Vote” and Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, was excused from the vote.