Politics

Voting On The Same Thing Three Times? It’s Happening In NE Georgia

Early voting happening at the Stephens County Government Building in Toccoa, Ga.
Early voting happening at the Stephens County Government Building in Toccoa, Ga.
Credit Emma Hurt / WABE

Some voters in Northeast Georgia are going to the polls in a Republican primary for the third time Tuesday. A judge has overturned this state house election twice because people were allowed to vote in the wrong districts.

There are no Democratic candidates in the district, so the winner of the Republican primary wins the seat.

Voters in Statehouse District 28 disagree about whether the elections should have been overturned, and where the blame lies, but everyone agrees they hope the third election will be the last.

Rissa Campbell grew up in Banks County, and she’s fed up that she has to vote on the same race three times.

“I’m sure that there have been some things out there that could have been done differently but I think by and large they’ve made mountains out of molehills and I think everybody’s tired of hearing about it and we need to move on,” she said while shopping at David and Katie’s Amish Store in Homer.

Campbell said that Dan Gasaway, the incumbent who has lost narrowly twice and challenged both elections, needs to give it up.

“Just let it go. If you lost, you lost,” she said. “Everybody doesn’t get a trophy.”

But the courts found in Gasaway’s favor twice: that enough people were voting in the wrong districts to warrant two redo’s. In the first decision, 74 voters were found to be assigned to the wrong districts. The original May primary was decided by 67 votes.

In the second, four votes were found to be illegal, from people who had moved and one person who voted twice. That second election in December was decided by two votes.

‘Do It Right’

For Banks County farmer William Reems the redo’s are frustrating, but they indicate real electoral problems.

“From my side, it’s about getting things right and holding people accountable,” he said. “Everybody should want fair and equal elections.”

Chris Irvin, a businessman in Stephens County, agreed.

“I go with the judge’s decision. Elections are sacred,” he said. “And if wrongful votes were cast, it’s a null and void election, do it over again, do it right. I think the blame falls back somewhere, but it’s not on either candidate.”

Dan Gasaway said the whole thing started when his wife’s colleague said she had gotten the wrong ballot when she tried to vote.

And almost a year later, he said his fight is about the integrity of the voting process.

“Accurate elections are the foundation of the country,” he said. “So if we’re not going to be concerned about our elections being accurate and being legal, then we don’t really care about the foundations of our country.”

Gasaway’s opponent Chris Erwin, who won both contests narrowly, doesn’t agree that there’s been anything worth challenging regarding how elections officials carried the elections out.

“We feel on our side that [elections officials] have done it right,” Erwin said. “That they have done a good job working hard and that’s why you’ll see we have an appeal in with the Supreme Court.”

That appeal is still pending.

“What I will tell you is that I’m upset we’re unrepresented right now at the House,” Erwin said. “There’s a lot of very important votes that need to take place and that part is not right

The Costs

Erwin briefly held office until the judge’s order came through. And then, the seat sat empty for the rest of the recent legislative session. He also complained about the costs to the counties: for the special elections and the legal fees. This April election is costing Habersham County about $8,000 and Banks County about $15,000. The registrar for Stephens County, the third county in District 28, said she wouldn’t know the cost until after the fact.

The costs and lack of state house representation also frustrate Commissioner Natalie Crawford, vice chair of the Habersham County Commission. Habersham County is where most of the illegal votes were cast.

Crawford supports Erwin in the race, but she understands why Gasaway took the counties to court.

“When you’ve got candidates who are running who don’t have confidence in the process, how much more so do your voters feel they can’t be confident in the process,” she said.

“We’re having to do a re-do, of a re-do. I think when you wind up in a situation like that, that shakes your faith in the process.”

To her the errors show that the Secretary of State’s office needs to offer more support to counties.

“It’s a comedy of errors that occurred. And what has happened in the end is voters have been disenfranchised and candidates for office have been as well,” Crawford said.

But no matter what, she said, it should be an issue everyone agrees on.

A Bipartisan Issue?

But pointing out voting irregularities has become something of a partisan issue in Georgia. Former Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams has made voting integrity a key message, and the Georgia Democratic Party has followed suit.

She continues to question whether last November’s election was fairly run and has regularly used this North Georgia race to further make her point.

Crawford, a Republican, has faced local blow back from appearing in a Super Bowl ad with Abrams, encouraging accurate elections.

In this deep red district, the situation hasn’t played out well for Gasaway, either. There’s a fake photo circulating on social media that photoshopped him hugging Abrams.

“Oh sure. I’m constantly being criticized for being just like Stacey Abrams, and my case is completely different. I have proven in a courtroom illegal voting not once, but twice,” Gasaway said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s such a partisan issue because really it needs to be a bipartisan issue, and we have to deal in truth.”

While Abrams’ team had some legal victories around specific votes being counted during the election, her broader federal lawsuit challenging the administration of Georgia’s elections is still pending.

For some in the district, the judge’s decisions just aren’t relevant. Kevin Holloway is a diesel mechanic from Maysville. He doesn’t buy that there are issues with the voting system and said Gasaway has lost.

However, Holloway said there is one thing people locally agree on.

“It’s kind of a running joke in our town now. You know, when is this going to end?” he said. “You know, we laugh now. It’s become a joke.”

Would Gasaway challenge for the third time?

No, he said.

“I’m done. It’s just put too much on my family,” he said. “We’ve had to spend over $100,000 of our own money and there’s only so much you can do.”