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Lawsuit Is About Voting Rights, not Jesse Houle

On a recent Friday morning, my cell phone rang. “Rick,” said the caller, “the petition to overturn the decision to void Jerry NeSmith’s votes in the [Athens-Clarke County Commission] District 6 race is going before the court. Some of us were talking, and we were wondering…” 

“No,” I replied before they could complete the sentence. “I have no interest in running.”

“We just thought you would be an ideal candidate,” my caller continued. 

“That’s flattering. But it ain’t going to happen.”

The next day, I got a call from Jesse Houle, the runner up to the late Commissioner Nesmith, who accidentally died two days before the June 9 election. Houle was the beneficiary of an ACC Board of Elections ruling, on the advice of County Attorney Judd Drake, that discounted the incumbent’s 1,864 votes and made his opponent, who earned 1,404 votes, the winner. “Rick, are you planning to run for the District 6 seat?”

Through my laughter, I replied, “No, Jesse, I have no desire to be on the commission. Where is this coming from?”

“There’s a rumor out that you are going to run,” Houle said. 

Kill the rumor, please. I have absolutely no interest in being elected county commissioner, member of the Board of Education or dog catcher. However, I do plan to support Houle if and when a special election is scheduled. 

I feel my greatest contributions to this community comes from providing youth services and making people aware of issues via my radio show. That is all the power and influence I need. That influence is why I think the people behind the petition to overturn the original election outcome asked me to join their ranks. Which I did, and please allow me to explain why.

When first asked to sign the petition, it was stated that Houle supported the initiative. “How novel,” I thought. Here was a candidate who realized that earning the trust and confidence of the people in the district would only come by vote and not appointment.  Here was a candidate who respected the right to vote so much that he would risk losing a second election. I’ve got to support somebody like that. I’ll put my name on that petition. 

Little did I know that signing the petition meant suing Houle and the Board of Elections. I thought it just meant addressing a bad law (even Drake admitted it was subject to challenge) that disenfranchised voters and worked to the benefit of the political power structure. I did not see it as conservative vs. liberal or Democrat vs. Republican. I saw it, and still see it, as people being denied the chance to vote. I see at as right vs. wrong.

I grew up in an American city where residents still do not have full voting rights—Washington, DC. It was 1961 before those living in the nation’s capital were granted the right to vote for president of the United States. It was 1974 when, for the first time, Washingtonians elected a mayor. They still do not have a U.S. senator, and their lone member of the House of Representatives cannot vote on legislation.

Based on that experience, I feel the law that wiped out votes cast for NeSmith is as vile as the one Gov. Brian Kemp is using to try to deny voters the chance to elect someone to replace retired District Attorney Ken Mauldin. Different circumstances, same results—people were denied the right to select a political office holder by voting. In the words of the recently deceased civil rights champion C.T. Vivian, “Whenever anyone does not have the right to vote, then every man is hurt.”

So, everyone with heartburn over this petition, it is not about you. It is far greater than you. It is about preserving the right to vote for everyone. I’ll take those yard signs when you are ready, Jesse.