Better Together: GA’s Gwinnett County Removes Prohibition on Election Assistance to Localities

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Gwinnett County, GA has eliminated a policy prohibiting direct elections assistance to localities after those communities asked to stop the need for running dual same-day elections in the county. The Daily Post has more:

The door has been opened for Gwinnett County’s cities to approach the county’s elections office about running their municipal elections.

The Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections amended an existing policy which blocked cities from asking the county to run their elections. The change came after Peachtree Corners City Councilman Eric Christ approached the elections board in April about changing the rules on whether the county could be involved in municipal elections.

“It basically strikes out the prohibition we would have against engaging in municipal elections,” board member Stephen Day said of the amendment as it was being considered. “It doesn’t obligate the county in any way, shape or form to conduct it. It just takes (out) an overt statement saying we don’t do it and then under Georgia election law, it’s totally up to (the county) to negotiate with municipalities.”

The change is popular with localities and advocates alike:

The move to let the county negotiate with cities about running municipal elections had some support. The Peachtree Corners City Council adopted a resolution asking the elections board to change the policy at its May 28 meeting. The Gwinnett League of Women Voters had also asked the board to change the policy.

“All that’s happened is that every time our staff or other cities have approached the elections division to say ‘Hey, let’s do this,’ absent some overriding state law — which was required for them to manage our elections for our first two years, it was written into our founding act — the elections division just keeps pointing back to this policy statement by the board of elections saying ‘I’m sorry, our hands are tied. It’s prohibited by the board of elections,’ “ Christ told his fellow City Council members on May 28.

Removing the prohibition raises the possibility that localities will no longer have to run separate elections from the county – with different ballots and polling places on the same day:

League of Women Voters co-acting Presidents Diane Fisher and Stephanie Wright said there have been issues when cities hold special elections on the same day that the county is holding a regular or special election because it has meant voters in those cities have had to go to two separate polling locations to cast ballots in each election.

“Just opening it up to the possibility and taking that prohibition out of there will make it so that the discussions can be had,” Fisher said. “Nobody is forcing cities to take advantage of the opportunity and nobody is forcing the county to do it, but at least now they’re not prohibited from doing so.”

In March, three cities held special elections to decide whether to allow earlier alcohol sales at restaurants on Sundays on the same day as Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum. Voters in those cities had to go to their respective city halls to cast ballots in their municipal special elections and then drive to their assigned polling location for county, state and federal elections to cast their ballot in the MARTA referendum.

“One of the things that we have seen over the past number of years is people get confused about where they are supposed to vote when there are municipal elections,” Fisher said.

If nothing else, changing the policy could reduce disparities in participation between communities:

Wright said there was a difference between turnout in Gwinnett cities and turnout in municipalities located in other counties on the brunch bill issue. She used Peachtree Corners, Duluth and Johns Creek, who had brunch bill elections last November, as an example.

“Johns Creek also had a brunch bill and it had about a 55 percent turnout because it was just a line item on their county ballot whereas Peachtree Corners had about 5 percent turnout and Duluth wasn’t very much different because it required going someplace else,” Wright said.

This is a small change, but one that could be a huge help to localities who want the county’s assistance in running municipal elections. Kudos to everyone in Gwinnett for coming together to make the change happen; I’ll be curious to see if separate municipal votes are now a thing of the past. Stay tuned …

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