A proposal to change how a Bibb County elections board member is chosen is pitting local Republicans against Democratic lawmakers.
Several Democrats say the bid — which would change how the independent member of the elections board is appointed — is a political ploy by some GOP officials to wrangle control away from the local governing body.
Republican lawmakers state Sen. John Kennedy and Rep. Allen Peake deny there is any political motivation beyond finding a fairer way to select the member.
Among the duties of the Bibb County Board of Elections are verifying election results and establishing precinct boundaries. The board has faced scrutiny in recent years when it has tackled issues such as Sunday voting, reducing the number of precincts and proposing temporarily relocating a precinct inside a sheriff’s office building.
The five-member elections board includes two people selected by the Bibb County Democratic party and two people selected by the Bibb County Republican party. A fifth independent board member is now appointed by the Macon-Bibb County Commission if the four other elections board members are unable to agree on whom should be in the position.
Kennedy and Peake are advocating for a Superior Court judge to choose that member if the elections board can’t decide.
“To really determine who could be a bipartisan, independent member of the election board, you should go to an independent source to name that fifth person rather than a political body,” Peake said.
State Rep. James Beverly said the proposal is a bad idea.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t think the Superior Court judge should choose what traditionally would be (chosen by) the county commission. These are folks voters elected and know what’s going on in the jurisdiction.”
He added, “It’s another example of trying to consolidate power into the hands of the minority in Bibb County, which happens to be Republican.”
Elections board split
After the proposal was brought up during a legislative meeting, two GOP elections officials requested a special called meeting for the board.
A few days later, on Dec. 20, the measure of support failed with a 2-2 vote by the Bibb elections board. Voting in favor of the change were Republican board members Rinda Wilson and Herb Spangler. Elections board chairwoman Cassandra Powell, a Democrat, and independent member Mike Kaplan voted it down. The second board Democrat, Ronnie Miley, was unable to attend the meeting.
Kaplan said he needs more information on the proposal. He said he felt like the measure was being rushed through the elections board.
“I think this independent position is so important because ideologically you have a discrepancy between Democrats and Republicans not just here but on a national level,” Kaplan said. “The independent vote is the people’s vote, and that’s how I treat it.”
Powell said the county commission, as the governing authority, should decide on the member if the elections board can’t come to a majority vote.
“(Spangler) is worried that the county commission could turn blue and appoint a Democrat there,” she said. “It’s all about partisan politics with them. They don’t care about the rights of the 101,000 voters we have in Bibb.”
Spangler said he’s looking out for residents by trying to ensure the least amount of politics is involved in deciding the independent board official.
“If he were to vote in a certain way and certain people didn’t like the way he voted, then in March when we appoint our fifth member, two of the board members would vote no,” he said. “What I’m trying to get away from is the politics of it.”
Although support from the elections board would be good to have, the measure may still be on the agenda for the upcoming legislative session even without it, Kennedy said.
Since the consolidation of Macon and Bibb County in 2014, county commission elections have been nonpartisan. Superior Court judges are also elected in nonpartisan races. The chief judge of a Superior Court district — the person likely to appoint the independent Bibb elections board member — is the most senior judge in the district.
“I think the model we have now where the two Republicans and two Democrats agree on the fifth person is a pretty good model as long as it works,” Kennedy said. “If they can agree, that structure is one that sort of forces folks to find someone who is independent.”
While the county commission positions are nonpartisan, because of the nature of the body there will be some political motivation behind some of their decisions, Kennedy said.
“If there is anything we don’t want, it’s politics involved with how the board that is responsible for counting votes operates,” he said. “That ought to be above and beyond politics.”
But state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, said it boils down to Republicans acting as if many Superior Court judges in Georgia don’t tend to be more conservative. The commission has proven capable of appointing someone when the issue arises, he said.
“The Republicans wanted (an independent member) they felt like was real conservative,” Lucas said. “It’s nothing but a game being played. There’s no problem with how it’s done now.”