OPINION — A poll watcher is a person designated by an independent candidate, nonpartisan candidate, a political party, or a political body to observe at a polling place on election day or during advance voting. Poll Watchers may be permitted behind the enclosed space for the purpose of observing the conduct of the election and the counting and recording of votes.
Poll watchers are unpaid and sit in uncomfortable chairs for very long periods of time watching lines of voters cycle through the polling place. The volunteer duty can often be boring, but they are the guardians of democracy in our elections, doing their best to ensure the process is evenhanded and unprejudiced for both the voters and the candidates.
Why mistreat the poll watchers?
Well, let’s just say the ill-mannered reaction from Gary Rower, Vice Chairman of our Fayette County Board of Elections, regarding Suzanne Brown’s (no relation) column on disclosing some of the shortcomings of the local election process was disappointing.
Ms. Brown carefully laid out the facts in her October 24 column about an elderly voter not being allowed to vote in the Peachtree City special election, nor was she allowed to complete a provisional ballot as required by state law.
The column also pointed out there were at least two areas of residential housing in the city limits that were coded completely wrong in the Board of Elections computer system, meaning at least 123 city dwellers were registered as not residing in the city, subjecting them to be turned away.
A little perspective, please
Let’s assess the situation. In a five-candidate city council race, a handful of votes can mean the difference between being in a runoff or not.
Mr. Rower has run for elected office before and had the opportunity to be in a runoff. Ms. Brown did nothing other than provide facts that Mr. Rower did not dispute, so why the distasteful response from the Board of Elections?
When there are at least 123 voters, some of whom we know intended to vote, have the wrong information on their voter registration card and may not even know they are eligible to vote in the special election, then yes, small vote margins between candidates could spell trouble.
I have been told that one Peachtree City special election candidate has already filed a formal objection in writing with the Board of Elections.
Less nastiness, more humility, and gratitude
Mr. Rower labels Ms. Brown’s column “misinformation” in his first sentence. He accuses Ms. Brown of being “more interested in inflaming passion than fully reporting.” Then he goes on to admit the facts related to the local voters and their registration are, in fact, accurate. Gee whiz!
Keep in mind that these Board of Elections errors had been on the books for years. Are there more? I do not know, and I do not believe the Board of Elections knows at this point.
Instead of humbly thanking Ms. Brown and the other poll watchers who discovered the years-long miscoding error, allowing the Board of Elections to attempt a fix prior to Election Day, Mr. Rower goes into hubris mode covering his behind saying, “What is noteworthy is that no one from the area in question has apparently voted in a citywide election in the past four years or this would have been identified before now.”
Of course, they have not voted in a citywide election because their voter registration cards and the Board of Elections’ own system say they can’t vote, goodness gracious. Remember, the voter was not even allowed to fill out a provisional ballot, just turned away. How many were turned away unreported before?
Mr. Rower continued, “No one was denied the opportunity to vote. No one was disenfranchised.”
Thanks to Ms. Brown and others who took up the case for the elderly voter, she was able to return and cast a provisional ballot. It had nothing to do with Mr. Rower or the elections staff who turned her away, so she obviously would have been “denied” and “disenfranchised” had it not been for the nice people Mr. Rower chastises in his letter to the editor.
When maladroitness rules
The buck stops with you, Mr. Rower. Badmouthing the local volunteer citizens who bring up the serious shortcomings and imperfections in our voting process is a black eye for the Board of Elections and the Board of Commissioners who appointed you to your position.
Unfortunately, Mr. Rower threw his paid poll workers under the bus with an arrogant proclamation, “Will the elections division review the poll manager/worker training material following this election cycle? Count on it.” This has nothing to do with the poll workers. It was a multi-year lapse of the Board of Elections members and the well-paid director.
In a final condescending jab at Ms. Brown who dared to present the undisputed facts, Mr. Rower uttered, “It is the same nonsense repeated all over the country by people who have no evidence but ‘feel’ like the system is flawed.”
For the record, it’s always been the average citizens like our poll watchers raising concerns about our less-than-perfect political systems who keep the self-important and overconfident bureaucrats in check when it comes to elections.
Note, there is plenty of evidence that people want to derail elections:
• NBC News, January 28, 2022 — A Pennsylvania court struck down the state’s mail voting law Friday morning, saying voters must amend the state constitution before such legislation is legal.
• Washington Examiner, March 16, 2021 — Michigan judge rules secretary of state violated election law by unilaterally changing absentee voting rules.
• Wisconsin Public Radio, July 8, 2022 — Wisconsin Supreme Court rules absentee ballot drop boxes are illegal in Wisconsin.
• JudicalWatch.org, August 21, 2021 — Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit on October 5, 2020, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado on behalf of itself and three residents of Colorado against Jena Griswold, Colorado Secretary of State, and the State of Colorado to force them to clean the state’s voter rolls as required by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).
• The Western Journal, January 27, 2021 — A Virginia Circuit judge has ruled that Virginia’s last-minute election rule change to allow mail-in ballots to arrive late without a postmark was illegal.
• Detroit Free Press, October 20, 2022 — Michigan Judge’s order bars election officials from using the new challenge manual and requires Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Michigan elections director Jonathan Brater to rescind the manual or revise it to comply with Michigan election law.
• New York Post, October 28, 2022 — Delaware Supreme Court rules vote-by-mail, same-day registration laws unconstitutional.
And, yes, sometimes private citizens who attempt to corrupt the voting system to a single-party advantage get overruled by the courts too:
• The Hill, October 1, 2022 — A federal judge has ruled against an organization founded by Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee for Georgia, stating that the state’s election practices do not violate constitutional rights.
• Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2022 — Supreme Court upholds Arizona election rules, defeating a George Soros-funded lawsuit, leaving states more room to tighten voting laws.
What will they do now?
Following the inauspicious response from the Vice Chairman of the Board of Elections, where do they go from here? Here are some suggestions:
• Remove Gary Rower as Vice Chairman
• The Board of Elections can issue a formal public apology to Ms. Brown who publicly cited the valid election issues. They volunteer long hours out of their days as poll watchers to ensure the voting process in Fayette County is fair. Their facts were never disputed, and that is not how you treat citizen volunteers.
• Mr. Rower can apologize to the Board of Commissioners and his colleagues on the Board of Elections for his behavior, undermining the county government’s reputation.
• The full-time Elections Director and his staff should issue notices (call or postcards) alerting all miscoded voters that they are eligible to vote in the Peachtree City special election and that a provisional ballot will be provided at their request.
• Develop a constituent service strategy that includes polite interaction with the public and better communication. Several people asked me if they could vote in the Peachtree City special election at the Tyrone and Fayetteville early voting locations. Why are they having to ask me? I looked on the Board of Elections webpage and it said nothing about the issue. There is a good bit of information that could be on the webpage and in press releases to build constituent knowledge.
• Following the November election, the Board of Elections needs to audit all the various district boundaries across the county and ensure they are accurate in the computer system and voters are appropriately coded.
• Conducting poll worker training for Election Day at the same time the staff is supposed to be supervising the early voting period in three locations is a system overload and not an agile culture ready to respond to crises quickly.
• The technology voting equipment security must be improved for early voting.
• Determine whether the technology voting equipment at the polls is openly communicating with other devices elsewhere during early voting and Election Day.
• Most importantly, be responsive and respectful to the constituents (even if you disagree with them) and practice humility in all your dealings with staff, poll workers, and poll watchers.
[Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners.]