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The Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney prosecutes cases in both Athens-Clarke County and Oconee County. (Photo/Gabriella Audi, www.gabbyaudi10.wixsite.com/mysite-1)

The election to determine the next district attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit has hit another snare.

The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office distributed mail-in ballots to 11,911 voters in Athens-Clarke County and 4,119 voters in Oconee County that listed Interim District Attorney Brian Patterson as the incumbent district attorney.  

Former H.D. 117 State Rep. Deborah Gonzalez, Patterson and Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney James Chafin are currently running for the office.

“If a voter is looking at the ballot and they … [don’t] necessarily research the candidates, they would be more likely to select the candidate that has the word incumbent next to their name,” ACC Board of Elections Chairperson Jesse Evans said.

The state government misprinted the ballots, creating “an egregious error,” ACC Attorney Judd Drake said. 

Drake also pointed out the ballot incorrectly labeled Chafin as an independent candidate. Although running as a non-partisan candidate, Drake said Chafin didn’t register as an independent or with any other political party.

In February, former DA Ken Mauldin’s resignation triggered a 2018 Georgia law which specified if Kemp filled Mauldin’s vacancy with an appointment after May 3 — six months before election day — his appointee would serve as the next district attorney until the winner of the 2022 DA election was decided. Kemp’s appointee, not yet announced, could run in the 2022 election.

As the May 3 deadline passed and no appointee was named, Gonzalez sued Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for effectively canceling the election, calling it an act of voter suppression. 

In light of Gonzalez’s suit, U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen granted Gonzalez’s motion for preliminary injunction and ordered Raffensperger to take all steps necessary to conduct the district attorney election in July. 

However, Raffensperger and Kemp’s attorneys filed an appeal, which took the case to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Georgia Supreme Court heard both side’s oral arguments in mid-September and is expected to reach its decision soon. The decision will determine whether the 2018 law was constitutional and, by extension, whether voters can elect a district attorney in November even though the candidates/race are on the ballot.

Although the Supreme Court will decide if the election results will be voided, the election is listed on ballots for convenience sake if the election is permitted.

Following Mauldin’s resignation, Patterson, who was the chief assistant district attorney at the time, became the interim district attorney. Patterson has not issued a statement about the erroneous mail-in ballots and hasn’t returned The Red & Black’s phone calls and texts.

Gonzalez requested the ACC Board of Elections send corrected mail-in ballots to each of the almost 16,000 voters who received faulty ballots. However, in a special called session late last month, the board denied her request and instead unanimously passed a motion to post a message on the board’s website and send letters to affected voters to notify them of the erroneous ballots.

Drake advised the board to deny Gonzalez’s request at the meeting, saying distributing new ballots risks miscounting votes, confusing voters and jeopardizing voters’ anonymity. 

“If Ms. Gonzalez has a problem with it, she can take it to court, which will keep us out of the problem,” ACC Board of Elections Vice Chairperson Charles Knapper said during the meeting.

If voters sent in two ballots, Drake said, the Board of Elections would have to review the ballots by hand to determine the correct one.

“We were disappointed the State printed the absentee ballots incorrectly,” Chafin said to The Red & Black in an email.

The Oconee County Board of Elections also decided to not deliver new mail-in ballots due to similar concerns. The county also posted a notice on its website about the error, Oconee County Director of Elections Fran Leathers said to The Red & Black in an email.

Gonzalez decried the distribution of the faulty ballots as an act of voter suppression. 

“It just seems that in a specific race, where there's so much happening right, the lawsuit, the publicity, that they’re not going to double-check … the ballot,” Gonzalez said. “That, to me, is just so hard to believe everything that has happened with this election. For them to just nonchalantly say somebody made a mistake and nobody checked it, that is so hard to believe.”

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(1) comment

JMills

This is such an important election. From what I have personally observed and experienced, Deborah has absolutely NO experience as a criminal prosecutor. Her platform is all about policy reform to help the criminals avoid consequences for their behavior, not criminal prosecution. What is funny is that most of her innovative ideas are already being done by the current District Attorney’s office. When I asked Deborah about her personal experience in a civil or criminal courtroom as a litigator, she had none.

She similarly lacks the skills and ability to satisfy the statutory criteria of O.C.G.A. 15-18-6 which outlines the duties of a District Attorney which DO NOT include policy reform. Can you imagine an activist actually running the gov’t office charged with prosecuting criminals and keeping our community safe?

The District Attorney is expected to do the following: prosecute all indictable offenses (O.C.G.A. 15-18-6(5), argue appellate issues from Athens and Oconee Counties (O.C.G.A. 15-18-6(6), and advise law enforcement officers concerning evidence issues, warrants, and other matters regarding the investigation and prosecution of criminal offenses (O.C.G.A. 15-18-6(7)?

Deborah simply cannot do any of those tasks because she has no training or experience as a prosecutor. Thankfully, Brian Patterson is already doing those things each day and has been for around 20 years. As a citizen of Oconee County, I am alarmed that Deborah has the audacity to run an election for a position for which she is obviously not even remotely qualified. Similarly, nobody wants a Sheriff who has never had any hands-on experience fighting crime or a teacher who has read the books, but never been in a classroom. Brian Patterson has personally prosecuted thousands of cases, handled over 150 appeals, and knows how to get the job done. The District Attorney’s office is NOT a place for somebody seeking policy reform when their job is to PROSECUTE cases. Vote Brian Patterson for DA! Our friends and families need a prosecutor who cares more about victims than repeat offenders who don't feel they are being treated fairly.

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