She Was a Black Election Official in Georgia. Then Got here New G.O.P. Guidelines.

0
123

LaGRANGE, Georgia – Lonnie Hollis has served on the Troup County’s Electoral Committee in western Georgia since 2013. As a Democrat and one of two black women on the board, she spoke out in favor of the Sunday election, helped voters on election days and moved to a new district in a black church in a nearby town.

But this year, Ms. Hollis will be removed from the board, the result of a local electoral law signed by Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican. Previously, the members of the electoral board were elected by both political parties, the district commissioner and the three largest municipalities in the Troup district. Now the GOP-controlled district commission has sole power to restructure the board and appoint all new members.

“I speak out and know the laws,” said Ms. Hollis in an interview. “The bottom line is that they don’t like people who have any kind of intelligence and know what they’re doing because they know they can’t influence them.”

Mrs. Hollis is not alone. Across Georgia, at least 10 district electoral committees have been dismissed, removed from office, or are likely to be dismissed by local ordinances or new laws passed by the state legislature. At least five are colored and most are Democrats – although some are Republicans – and they will most likely all be replaced by Republicans.

Ms. Hollis, and local officials like her, were some of the earliest victims when Republican-led parliaments took on a massive takeover of the electoral administration in a series of new voting bills this year.

GOP lawmakers have also stripped secretaries of state of their power, exercised more control over state electoral boards, facilitated the overturning of election results, and conducted several partisan reviews and inspections of 2020 results.

Republican lawmakers in 41 states have tabled at least 216 bills to give lawmakers more power over election officials, according to the United States’ United Democracy Center, a new bipartisan organization dedicated to protecting democratic norms. Of these, 24 were enacted in 14 states.

GOP lawmakers in Georgia say the new measures are designed to improve the performance of local bodies and reduce the influence of political parties. But the laws allow Republicans to remove local officials they dislike, and since some of them were Black Democrats, franchise groups fear these are further attempts to disenfranchise colored voters.

The maneuvers risk undermining some of the core controls that served as a bulwark against former President Donald J. Trump as he tried to undermine the 2020 election results. If these bills had come into effect after the election, Democrats say, they would have greatly increased the turmoil Trump and his allies created by attempting to overturn the outcome. They fear that proponents of Trump’s conspiracy theories will soon have much greater control over the levers of the American electoral system.

“It is a barely veiled attempt to wrest control from the officials who led one of the safest elections in our history and to place them in the hands of bad actors,” said Jena Griswold, chairwoman of the Association of Democratic State Secretaries and the current one Colorado Secretary of State. “The risk is the destruction of democracy.”

Officials like Ms. Hollis are responsible for making decisions such as choosing mailbox and district locations, sending out election notices, setting early polling times, and certifying elections. But the new laws also target senior state officials, particularly foreign ministers – both Republican and Democratic – who have stood up against Trump and his allies over the past year.

The Republicans in Arizona have tabled a bill that would largely deprive Katie Hobbs, the Democratic Secretary of State, of her powers on election lawsuits and then expire when she leaves office. And they have tabled another bill that would give the legislature more power in setting guidelines for election administration, an important task currently being carried out by the Foreign Minister.

Under Georgia’s new electoral law, Republicans have severely weakened the office of Secretary of State after Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who is the current secretary, rejected Trump’s demands to “find” votes. You have dismissed the State Secretary as chairman of the state election committee and relieved his voting rights on the board.

The Kansas Republicans in May vetoed Democrat Laura Kelly to pass laws that would deprive the governor of changing electoral law and the Secretary of State, a Republican who repeatedly vouched for the security of postal votes, from the settlement election-related actions without the consent of the legislature.

And more Republicans who hold on to Mr. Trump’s election lies are running for secretary of state, bringing conspiracy theorists to a critical position within reach. In Georgia, MP Jody Hice, a Republican who voted against confirming President Biden’s victory, is running against Raffensperger. Republican candidates with similar views are running for secretary of state in Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan.

“In virtually every state, every polling officer will feel like they’re under the microscope,” said Victoria Bassetti, a senior adviser with the United Democracy Center in the United States.

In the short term, it is local election officials at district and community level who are either deposed or robbed of their power.

In Arkansas, Republicans were stabbed last year when Jim Sorvillo, a three-time state official from Little Rock, lost re-election by 24 votes to Ashley Hudson, a Democrat and local lawyer. It was later found that election officials in Pulaski County, which includes Little Rock, inadvertently tabulated 327 postal ballot papers, 27 of which were from the district, during the vote count.

Mr. Sorvillo filed several lawsuits to prevent Ms. Hudson from being seated, and all of them were denied. The Republican faction considered refusing to seat Ms. Hudson and then eventually voted to accept her.

But last month the Arkansas Republicans passed a new bill that would allow a state committee of electoral officers – made up of six Republicans and one Democrat – to investigate a variety of issues at every stage of the electoral process, from registration onwards, and Initiate corrective action “. for the submission and counting of ballot papers to confirm elections. The law applies to all counties, but it is widely believed to be directed against Pulaski, one of the few in the state who favor Democrats.

The draftsman, State Representative Mark Lowery, a Republican from a suburb of Little Rock, said it was necessary to remove voting power from local authorities, who are Democrats in Pulaski County, because otherwise Republicans could not be shaken fairly .

“Without this legislation, you would have been the only authority to turn to the prosecutor for inappropriateness, who is a Democrat and may have done nothing,” Lowery said in an interview. “This gives another level of investigative power to a state-mandated body to oversee the elections.”

When asked about last year’s election, Mr. Lowery said, “I think Donald Trump was elected President.”

A separate new Arkansas law allows a state board to “vote and conduct” elections in a county when a legislative committee determines that there are questions about the “appearance of an equal, free, and impartial election.”

In Georgia, lawmakers passed a unique law for some counties. For Troup County, State Representative Randy Nix, a Republican, said he only tabled the county electoral board reorganization bill – and which will remove Ms. Hollis – after a motion was requested by county commissioners. He said he was not worried that the commission, a party body made up of four Republicans and one Democrat, could influence the elections.

“The commissioners are all elected officials and will face the electorate to answer for their actions,” Nix said in an email.

Eric Mosley, the county manager for Troup County, which Trump scored 22 points, said the decision to ask Mr. Nix for the bill was intended to make the board more bipartisan. It was unanimously supported by the Commission.

“We believed that the ultimate intent of the board of directors was to choose the removal of both Republican and Democratic representation and the real selection of members of the community who invest heavily to serve those members of the community,” Mosley said. “Our goal is to create both political and racial diversity on the board.”

In Morgan County, east of Atlanta, Helen Butler was one of the most prominent Democratic voices in the state on suffrage and electoral administration. As a member of the county electoral committee in a rural Republican district, she also leads the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a group dedicated to protecting the voting rights of black Americans and strengthening their civic engagement.

But Ms. Butler will be removed from the county board at the end of the month after Mr. Kemp signed a local law ending the ability of political parties to appoint members.

“I think this is all part of the local electoral board takeover trick that state lawmakers put in place,” Ms. Butler said. “They say they have a right to say whether an election officer is doing it right, even though they don’t work on a day-to-day basis and don’t understand the process itself.”

It’s not just Democrats who are being removed. In DeKalb County, the fourth largest in the state, Republicans decided not to nominate Baoky Vu to the electoral board again after more than 12 years in office. Mr. Vu, a Republican, had written with the Democrats in a letter that opposed an election-related bill that was ultimately not passed.

To replace Mr. Vu, Republicans nominated Paul Maner, a prominent local conservative with a history of false testimony, including the allusion that the son of a Georgia congressman was killed in “a drug deal gone wrong”.

Back in LaGrange, Ms. Hollis tries to do as much as possible in the remaining time on the board. The additional precinct in nearby Hogansville, where the population is roughly 50 percent black, is a top priority. Although the city only has about 3,000 residents, the city is divided by a railroad, and Ms. Hollis said it can sometimes take a long time to clear a freight car line, which is problematic on election days.

“We worked on it for over a year,” Ms. Hollis said, saying the Republicans had put procedural hurdles in place to block the process. But she was not deterred.

“I’m not going to sit there and wait for you to tell me what to do for the voters there,” she said. “I’ll do the right thing.”

Rachel Shorey contributed to the research.