Before local election returns were online, candidates, their supporters, journalists, interested citizens and other political junkies had to go down to the courthouse to get the latest returns on election night. No matter how fierce the campaign fights had been, all the candidates were together in the large basement room, some even chatting with each other. All eyes were fixed on the giant chalkboard neatly divided into columns for all the voting precincts. Each time the returns came in for a precinct, a board of elections member came out and wrote the numbers in the appropriate column, providing fresh evidence of who was winning and who was falling behind, eliciting cheers and moans from the crowd.
Frequently—especially during the period when our present unified government was taking shape—the writing duties fell to elections board member John Elliott, who was an ardent Republican fighting in the trenches to get his candidates elected and to block his opponents. During that unification period, in spite of all his hard work to the contrary, John was frequently on the losing side. Nevertheless, he marched grimly out to the chalkboard as each precinct came in, and he recorded the distasteful results. In spite of the highly charged partisan gatherings, with months of struggle hanging on each set of returns, nobody questioned the numbers John wrote down, even knowing how much he hated the results and also knowing Georgia’s long history of election fraud. In the old days, nearby Oglethorpe County had the reputation of never voting wrong in a governor’s race, the implication being that they just held their results until the winner was apparent and then adjusted their totals, to assure a place at the table when road-paving and other state largesse was passed out.
Because of Georgia’s spotty elections history, the legislature long ago fixed the process to prevent partisan tampering with returns, requiring on each board of elections representatives of both political parties. (Libertarians are out of luck.) This means that all over Georgia, partisan watchdogs are baked into each local elections board. Here in Athens-Clarke, we have by law an elections board member selected by local Republicans and one selected by local Democrats, and the rest of the members are local citizens appointed by the elected mayor and commission. And of course all elections are local. Whether it’s the president, the governor or your commissioner, you vote here in Athens-Clarke or with a ballot mailed in locally in an election overseen and tallied by the board of elections and the local poll workers they employ. The board members are local people doing their civic duty, and so are the poll workers—for long hours and low pay.
We have just concluded another election. Whether it went your way or not, it was managed here locally—and in every county in Georgia—by local people with bipartisan representation. They know each other, and they know that it is part of the process that political foes are keeping an eye on each other when anything is going on behind closed doors, like counting the votes. And we know them: They’re our friends and neighbors. They’re not strangers or bureaucrats or technocrats with vote-changing gizmos in their pockets. If you voted in person, you probably saw some of them, and you certainly saw the people who volunteered to put in long hours at the polls, managing the process by which we all make our political choices. And, of course, when elections are extremely close, there’s a provision for automatic recounts.
All these provisions for fair elections don’t ease the sting of defeat, and it’s true that our local elections managers can only work within the guidelines established by the legislature, which has been pretty harsh lately in removing some of the encouragements that make voting easier. Even so, voters turned out in large numbers all over the state.
Let us hope that claims of rigged elections and voter fraud are so 2020 by now that we can all remember just who is in charge of assuring election integrity right here in Athens. Hint: Not space aliens.
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