Fayette County Elections Board Member Marilyn Watts says her support of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is perfectly legal, despite assertions to the contrary by Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown.
Brown is upset that Watts has participated in the Newt Gingrich presidential campaign, but she points out that Georgia law allows her to do so on her personal time.
“You just don’t bring it to the office or the polling place,” Watts said Tuesday.
Brown has asked the Fayette County Republican Party to seek Watts’ resignation from the board, citing a need for board of elections members “who are not actively campaigning for candidates.”
The code section on the matter, 21-2-214(c) states that elections board members shall avoid participating in political activity for a candidate, political party or question “while conducting the duties of such person’s office.”
The law specifically prohibits political activity “including but not limited to” distributing campaign literature, engaging in communication that advocates or criticizes a candidate, officeholder or political party, and also wearing badges, buttons or clothing with partisan messages.
Watts said she has kept a pledge she made prior to taking office that she would relinquish any leading role she had in campaigns that she was associated with. As such, she resigned from leading Gingrich’s campaign efforts in Fayette County, but it’s possible her name remains on several contact lists kept by the Gingrich campaign despite her resignation at the end of January.
Georgia law, however, does not prevent her from such participation, Watts added.
Watts said although she agreed to relinquish her leadership role on Gingrich’s campaign, “that doesn’t mean I’m going to be in a nunnery.”
Recent elections board members from both the Republican and Democrat parties have been politically active while they held those posts, Watts added.
Brown was specifically critical of posts on Watts’ personal Facebook page where she advocated on behalf of Gingrich.
She also noted that the board of elections is a separate entity from Fayette County government, and the only power the commission has over the board is the appointment of one of its three members.
The reason for having the elections board separate is so it can be free of political influence from local elected officials, Watts noted.
As for a response from the Fayette County Republican Party, Chairman Lane Watts, who is also Marilyn Watts’ son, noted in an email to Brown that since there was no violation of the Georgia election code, “there will be no special called meeting nor will there be a resignation forthcoming.”
Marilyn Watts previously served as the county’s appointee to the board, but she was replaced last year by commissioners over the objections of Brown, who argued her years of experience would serve the county well. Last month it was announced that she was appointed to be the Republican party representative on the board.
The third seat on the board of elections is filled by appointment of the Fayette County Democrat Party.