City DopeNews

A Tale of Two Elections

Hannah Mapes helps Susan Beacham feed her ballot into the machine for early voting at the Board of Elections office in Athens on Thursday, May 28. Credit: Whitley Carpenter.

Two years ago, Athens voters cleaned house, sweeping out two incumbent commissioners, two school board members and even a judge, and in virtually every race picking the candidate perceived as more progressive. 

Voters pumped the brakes on the revolution last week, re-electing three incumbent commissioners by wide margins and choosing for an open seat a candidate with a long history of involvement in local government. Out of 11 contested local races in 2018, the candidate preferred by the progressive group Athens for Everyone won 10. This year, A4E went two for six.

In Commission District 4, incumbent Allison Wright won 67% of the vote to challenger Michael Stapor’s 33%. That might not be much of a surprise, considering Stapor is a 22-year-old UGA student. More surprising was District 10 incumbent Mike Hamby’s 40-point margin over Knowa Johnson, co-founder of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement and a well-known figure in the community. Hamby had never faced a challenger in three previous elections, and now we know why. 

District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith would have won a third term had he not died in a fall at his home three days before the election. He received 57% of the vote to progressive activist Jesse Houle’s 43%. Nevertheless, Houle will take office in January anyway. According to ACC Attorney Judd Drake, most states follow the “American rule,” under which a special election would be held. But not Georgia. Georgia follows the “English rule,” calling for NeSmith’s votes to be declared void. (A lawsuit over this seems likely.) A special election will be held anyway, though—on Nov. 3, to fill the last two months of NeSmith’s term.

Moving on, in District 8—a seat that opened up when Commissioner Andy Herod opted not to run again—longtime transportation and environmental activist Carol Myers avoided a runoff by winning 55% of the vote to Kamau Hull’s 31% and Andrea Farnham’s 14%. Farnham was the favorite of progressive organizations, with endorsements from A4E and the United Campus Workers of Georgia union.

But a closer look at those results reveals that the ground may be shifting. Almost two-thirds of voters—about 15,000 people—mailed in their ballots rather than show up in person, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Most of those people had likely postmarked their ballots at least a week or more in advance.

When those absentee ballots were finally counted and reported 20 hours after polls closed on June 9, it became obvious that absentee voters had different opinions from those who showed up on Election Day. At 11:30 p.m., when the last of the in-person results were posted, six votes separated NeSmith and Houle. At 3 p.m. the next day, when absentee results were added, NeSmith’s margin grew to 460. Likewise, Myers won 42% of in-person voters; she added 13 points with absentees. Hamby won 60% of the vote on Election Day, but 76% of absentee voters preferred him over Johnson.

What happened lately that would have changed people’s minds? Well, there were two massive demonstrations protesting police violence against African Americans in the 10 days preceding Election Day. Police tear-gassed peaceful protesters early on the morning of June 1, angering many residents who didn’t hesitate to let their elected officials know. And on June 6, thousands of demonstrators at a family-friendly event were unnerved by the even heavier law enforcement presence. Public opinion about race and police is shifting rapidly in Athens and all over the country. If the election had been held a month from now, results might very well have been different.

This theory doesn’t explain, however, how ACC police Sgt. John Q. Williams was able to unseat five-term Sheriff Ira Edwards. Williams’ small margin of victory (51%–49%) was consistent no matter when or how people voted. But Edwards had his own political problems that long predated George Floyd’s death. For example, a 2019 county audit revealed staffing shortages and low morale at the jail Edwards runs. He accepted campaign contributions from bail bondsmen at a time when the cash-bail system is widely unpopular locally and in the process of being dismantled. He also cooperated with Immigration and Customs enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants for deportation, only stopping after public pressure. 

Last but not least, the Board of Education’s District 2 will finally have some stability after going through three representatives in the past year and a half. Parent and activist Kirrena Gallagher defeated Mary P. Bagby 54%–46% in the county’s only contested school board race.