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.”