Something went very wrong when dozens, maybe even hundreds, of voters received the wrong ballots in a tight primary election in North Georgia.
They lived in one state House district but voted in another.
Now, the election that seemed to unseat an incumbent representative might be thrown out. State Rep. Dan Gasaway, who lost the May 22 primary by just 67 votes to Chris Erwin, is asking a judge to order a new election.
Election officials in Habersham County have acknowledged the errors, sending letters to voters saying “your address was found to have been placed in the wrong House district.”
“The Habersham County election office is a complete disaster,” said Gasaway, a Republican who has represented the Homer area since 2013. “It is going to take disciplinary action from the Secretary of State’s Office to get this corrected.”
Redoing the election would be an extraordinary and rare step, but it has happened before. An election for the mayor of Hazlehurst was thrown out in 2015 because of vote-buying allegations, and a Walker County state House race went through three elections in 2003 because of redistricting changes that led to voters being turned away.
In the Habersham County primary, mapping mistakes along district lines led to voters being assigned to incorrect state House districts.
Some voters who live in House District 28, represented by Gasaway, were assigned to House District 10, where state Rep. Terry Rogers is the representative. Other voters in Rogers’ district voted in the race between Gasaway and Erwin.
“It’s pretty mind-boggling,” said Rogers, a Republican from Clarkesville. “The main concern I have, no matter what the number of votes, most certainly is that I don’t want to see anybody disenfranchised. We need to make certain we do everything we can to get it straight as soon as possible.”
Voters said they were baffled by the mix-up. Some said they weren’t aware of the problem until they received the letter from Habersham election officials.
Jana Ward, who voted in the Republican primary, said she would have voted for Gasaway if his name had appeared on her ballot. Instead, she voted for Rogers, who didn’t have an opponent.
“If my ballot was wrong, then obviously my vote was cast in the wrong direction,” said Ward, who lives in Demorest. “It didn’t even occur to me that it would have swung the vote.”
Another voter, Dustin Mealor, said he tried to verify that his home near the border between the two districts was in the correct district before he voted in the primary. He said he would have voted for Erwin.
“I couldn’t tell whether we were in it or not,” said Mealor, who won a seat on the Habersham County Commission in the election. “The concerning thing is the confusion behind redistricting when that happens and it’s not clear.”
The county election official does not dispute the existence of mis-assigned voters, but says they didn’t affect the outcome and so the primary need not be re-run. That does not satisfy critics of the office, who say the county should be disciplined for its failure to sort out voters properly:
Habersham County Election Supervisor Laurel Ellison didn’t return a message seeking comment, but she said in a court filing Thursday that the election results should stand.
She admitted that some voters were allocated to the wrong House district, but not enough to change or place in doubt the outcome of the election, she said. It’s unclear how many voters were placed in the wrong district.
Under Georgia law, the responsibility for putting voters in the right district lies with county election officials, not the state government, said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
“This virtually never happens in elections. It only happens when there’s an egregious failure at the county level to take care of their primary responsibility of administering elections,” said David Dove, who was previously legal counsel for the Secretary of State’s Office and is now in private practice. “The Habersham County elections office has truly undermined the integrity of the elections process.”
Besides Gasaway’s lawsuit seeking a new election, the Secretary of State’s Office is investigating. Broce declined to comment on the investigation.
It appears that the confusion resulted from a combination of state legislative redistricting and the county’s efforts to find the right number of precincts – and eventually a county judge will decide what happens next, which is especially important since the winner of the primary is the winner of the seat:
Repeated changes to district lines and precincts could explain why voters received the wrong slate of candidates, Habersham Commission Chairman Victor Anderson said.
The county was split into two House districts when the General Assembly redistricted the state in 2011. In the years since, Habersham election officials reduced the number of precincts from 11 to two, and it then increased them again to seven, Anderson said.
“We consider this an extremely important concern to the commission, and we support all efforts for accurate elections going forward,” Anderson said…
Gasaway’s case is pending in Fulton County Superior Court, where a judge will decide how to proceed. He could order a new election, dismiss the case or take other action.
Gasaway’s attorney said a new election is needed, especially after Habersham election officials agreed that some voters were misplaced.
“This admission affirms that the House District 28 general Republican primary election was unfair, improper and should be redone,” said Gasaway’s attorney, Jake Evans.
No Democrat is running, so whoever prevails in the Republican primary will become the district’s state representative.
This issue of mis-assigned voters will be familiar to readers who followed the razor-thin fight for the Virginia House of Delegates – and the assertion that “this virtually never happens” notwithstanding, I would be willing to bet that similar problems exist along the borders of many districts nationwide, given how difficult it can be to match political geography with residential addresses and other physical map features. There’s a reason why the “Election Administrator’s Prayer” asks that “the margins be wide”; you never know when a close election might bring problems like this to the surface. Have a safe Fourth of July – and stay tuned …