February 3, 2021 - Malinda Scott Hodge, Vice Chair of the Chatham County Board of Elections, sent the following to the Chatham County legislation in its entirety.
“This year in elections by all accounts have been absolutely brutal. The state of Georgia implemented the use of a new voting machine. That new machine would later serve as the catalyst for selecting our current President and Legislative Leadership. Georgia became, through a series of events that I still struggle to fully grasp, the hub of decision making in both our Presidential and an intense Senatorial Run Off Election. The eyes of the nation rested upon our sleepy little unassuming state. People needed to know our results. We would determine our next President and eventually which party would control the electorate.
The level of scrutiny under which Elections workers operated was unimaginable and I was there. I had a front row seat to the unwelcome photo opportunities. I fielded phone calls from angry voters demanding answers. I listened to verbal requests laden with expletives and condescending tone. I responded to people asking questions, seeming to not want real answers. People were furious. What fueled their fury varied among them. There were demands that we stop the counting of votes in one election. Then we faced demands that we keep counting the votes in the next election. It was a highly contentious climate. Elections officials in every capacity were threatened both directly and indirectly. Threats came from political parties, political interest groups and private citizens. It has been a whirlwind of emotion.
Through it all, we did what we are charged to do. We conducted a free and fair election with auditable election results. Those individuals who participate in the elections process are trained. They take an oath. They work in compliance with state codes and guidelines as it pertains to elections. Every county within Georgia is charged to do the same. Our processes utilized in how we arrive at those results vary from county to county. Chatham County sets the standard for having conducted a presidential election without major mishap or error in tabulation. This is a direct result of the leadership within The Chatham County Board of Registrar and Board of Elections offices. Both of these offices are lead by veteran officials within the election worker community. Both of these leaders are well respected among their peers. They have a seamless working relationship. This is a huge fete considering the nature of elections.
While election codes and statutes are rigid, elections are very nuanced and extremely involved. Elections constantly evolve due to legislative acts in response to crises, such as the impact of COVID-19. I am in constant awe of the fast pace and constant evolution of elections. The people who do this work are steadfast and malleable. They prepare for the worst in hopes of the best. The pressure and public scrutiny under which some of them recently operated is truly inconceivable. Elections are what they do. Elections are by law, a transparent process open to the public. These people have absolutely nothing to hide. They do however, deserve for their personal space to be protected. They have a right to operate safely in a COVID compliant environment. Their service in elections work should not render them defenseless. Their participation in the process does not subject them to being photographed without consent. The freedom for one to observe does not infringe upon the elections worker right to not be verbally assaulted or abused by frustrated observers of of the elections process. The Board of Elections is obligated to all.
I want the general public to grasp the severity of the circumstances under which our staff and support team operated. We want to comply with the law that allows for public observation. We also want to be safe. The general population is entitled to the right to observe our processes. We embrace and encourage this very critical component of transparency in the voting process. Our desire to keep staff safe in no way is designed to infringe upon your right and freedom to observe our processes. Our policies are our best attempt to accomplish both tasks. We did so, for the most part, during two recent very high profile elections. As with any election, we debrief to determine how better to conduct elections while serving our constituency. This is the nature of the elections process. As I have stated numerous times, whether under observation locally or globally, the Chatham County Board of Elections workers do what they have been trained to do in compliance with our Georgia code.
The duties and functions of the Board of Registrar and The Board of Elections are distinctly different. The tasks cannot be combined no more than the United States Customs Office and the United States Postal Service. A merger of the two would simply be a matter of stating that they are combined. It would be a marriage of sorts, a partnership akin to what currently exists. It would be the equivalent of a common law marriage versus a full fledge legal wedding ceremony. Not very much would change for better or worse for most.
Processes will be no more streamlined than they currently are. Because tasks, duties and responsibilities are distinctly different there will be no fiscal savings in combining positions. Despite common belief merging will not solve what ails most. You will not obtain election results any faster with a merger. Elections processes are painstakingly tedious. This is intentional, in an effort to make every part of the process auditable. Plain & simple. A merger cannot and will not change this. In fact, something of great value will be lost in a merger. The offices being managed separately provide an intricately woven system of checks and balances. This attributes to minimizing the opportunity for errors in tabulation. Some of the issues that arise in other counties do not generally occur within Chatham County due to this built-in method of accountability that exists between the two offices. We cannot reduce staff and both sets of leadership will have to be maintained because the knowledge while different works congruently. A merger and potential reduction in staff, as opposed to creating positions to accommodate election growth, could be to our county’s detriment. We have acknowledged that elections have developed the need for additional staff and more permanent positions. We are currently initiating changes to accommodate Chatham County’s growth. Savannah “feels” small. I assure you we are not as small as we “feel”. Combining these operations would present regression before experiencing any possible progression.
The Board of Registrar manages the records of the voting population. The Board of Elections manages the voting process. Two separate boards manage these offices. The Board of Registrar is managed by an appointed board. The Board of Elections is managed by an elected board. The Board of Registrar demographically consists of predominantly white male attorneys. The Board of Elections has a diverse group by comparison. The Board of Registrar, in my experience mirrors the make-up of most appointed boards within most organizations. It is fairly typical.
As an aside, one may argue this is generally the case as it reflects the sector of the population that has access and existing relationships with those who make such board appointments. One may also argue that these individuals may typically have the skillset and availability to serve on a board. Board work is very demanding and extremely involved. The rewards are often intangible. It is not the most appealing type of work. It is very time consuming and often costs you financial opportunities due to the demand on your schedule and potential conflicts of interest. Boards are often times comprised of older white males. Perhaps these are individuals who have retired or at a comfort level in their career path. Their flexibility and freedom allow them to offer themselves to service within their community through board work. Make no mistake, one’s service on a board is noble whether appointed or otherwise. This is not an attack on white males who serve on various boards by any means. I fully understand that there are also a number of exceptions to this.
To be clear The Board of Registrar is comprised of fairly young and seemingly progressive minded individuals with a veteran black male who possesses a wealth of knowledge and expertise. Their Board works and gets it done. These are men who work seamlessly in an effort to provide support to the leadership. As a Board of Elections member, I would say they are easy to work with and the unity among them is admirable.
The Board of Elections is comprised of four members and a chair with vastly different backgrounds and experiences. To a degree, we somewhat mirror the makeup of our constituency. We have finally developed a chemistry that allows our board to move forward and provide some much-needed support in transition of leadership and office restructure. It is rumored that we are facing a Board merger. The Board of Elections collectively takes no issue with a merger. We have not been asked to participate in the decision-making process nor have we been formally included. We have varied individual opinions on the matter. We have varied approaches in discussing the matter with our elected officials. I see benefits to the existing model for the general public. What we have in Chatham County works for Chatham County.
My observations of the Board of Registrar are purely observational.
With regard to the Board of Elections, this is the board on which I serve as vice chair. We are elected. Chosen by our party. I am one of the two Democratic Representatives. The citizens of Chatham County elected each of us to serve. We are accountable to the citizens of Chatham County in that respect, and the citizens have access that would not be equal to that of an appointed member. I am not speaking to approachability. You may have an appointed member of a board who is absolutely approachable. However, by design, the accountability levels simply are not the same.
The Republican Party has (based on what has been shared) spearheaded this proposed merger. The Democratic Party has supported the effort as well. The irony is, it is the Democratic base that will suffer the loss of diversity in such a merger. The voice of the Democrats will essentially be dimmed until fully diminished at some point. It is my opinion that this may be intentional. The timing of the merger seems retaliatory in an effort to thwart the advancement of the Blue Wave that appears to be on the horizon. The individuals who have lobbied Republican leadership for this merger are doing so in an effort to diminish the voice of Democratic leadership and Republican leadership that chooses to work with Democratic representation within elections. The current board is no longer self destructive under the guise of self reporting. There are no more hidden agendas. Efforts to woo members of the opposing party in order to spin rhetoric and spew misinformation as though it were factual have ceased. The Board in place is here to focus on the task at hand. We are not consumed with matters that did not have to escalate. We are not presenting unfounded opposition and preventing the board from moving forward and getting some real impactful work done. We are unified, focused and ready to navigate the changes to come.
The Board of Elections is at a pivotal moment in the history of the Board where we will be selecting new leadership and determining the trajectory of that office. Our board is atypical. We do not look like your average decision makers. There are some who would rather see those individuals they trust with this kind of responsibility and decision making power. This merger appears to be yet again, a well timed, bold and brazen effort to prevent our board, in all of its diversity, from making a big decision with lasting impact. I will not allow the rumors or the actions of this effort to deter my board work. We will move forward with plans for restructure and expansion of The Chatham County Board of Elections to ensure every eligible voter the opportunity to vote.”