A Superior Court judge ruled that Jesse Houle won an Athens-Clarke County Commission race despite their opponent, who died days before the election, receiving more votes.
The late commissioner Jerry NeSmith received 1,866 votes to Houle’s 1,405 in the June 9 election—three days after NeSmith died in an accidental fall at his home. On the advice of ACC Attorney Judd Drake, the Board of Elections voided votes for NeSmith and declared Houle the winner.
A group of District 6 voters filed a lawsuit challenging that decision. They included NeSmith’s widow, Farol; Gordon Rhoden, chairman of the Athens GOP; and Denise Ricks, chairwoman of the ACC Democratic Committee (that organization has distanced itself from the lawsuit). The lawsuit alleged that their voting rights were violated and sought a special election.
But Senior Judge Thomas Hodges ruled that the Board of Elections made the correct decision in voiding votes for NeSmith because Georgia law says that ballots cast for a candidate who has died, withdrawn or been disqualified are illegal.
The situation is somewhat different from the late congressman John Lewis, who died with enough time left before the election for the Democratic Party to replace his name on the November ballot with Nikema Williams’. And in NeSmith’s case, because commission races are nonpartisan, there is no party to choose a replacement.
Further clouding the issue, a special election will still be held Nov. 3—but only to fill out the last two months of NeSmith’s term. Regardless of the outcome, Houle will take office in January.
Houle issued a statement last month, when the lawsuit was filed, paying tribute to NeSmith and pledging to work for voting rights reform.
“The void left by the sudden loss of Jerry is not one that can be filled by any other person,” they said. “I am not a substitute for Jerry NeSmith. I will enter humbly into service as your Commissioner and commit to working hard, every day, for and with all the people of District 6 to transform Athens into a community that works for all of us.”
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