All James Hall wanted to do was to help the people of Chatham County. That’s why he decided to run for a seat on the Elections Board.
And by every account, he was well qualified to do so. He has worked as a poll worker and an assistant manager of poll workers. The members of the Elections Board have said he’s qualified. So why did they decide to strike his name from the May primary ballot?
The Savannah Morning News provides some of the backstory. James Hall wanted to run for one of the two Republican seats on the Chatham County Elections Board after the current occupant decided to retire. He signed up to be on the ballot during partisan qualifying the first week of March. Another candidate, Marianne Heimes, qualified as well, meaning the race would be decided during the May 20th primary.
On March 20th, Hall’s candidacy was challenged by Daniel Crawford on the grounds that Hall was an employee of the city of Savannah. The Elections Board held a hearing on March 28th, and voted 4-1 to disqualify him. Hall decided to appeal the decision, and his case will be heard by Chatham County Superior Court this afternoon.
In deciding that Hall was not eligible to be a candidate, the Elections Board relied on a section of the Chatham County code, which states:
No person who holds elective or appointive office, or is a salaried employee of the governing authority … or any member of the Board of Education of Chatham County or any member of any commission appointed by the governing authority or any municipality located within Chatham County shall be eligible for appointment or election to the board[.]
Hall works for the Savannah Police Department as an analyst, examining violent/property crime, tracking repeat offenders, and working on re-entry programs. His job has nothing to do with elections or elected officials. In his appeal, he argues the county code is too vague in defining ‘governing authority,’ and that Georgia law dictates that the code must be interpreted broadly in favor of the person seeking office. He also claims he was denied due process, in that he was unable to question his accuser, and that one of the elections board members refused to recuse himself despite having endorsed Hall’s primary rival.
Chatham County is different from every other county in Georgia in that elections board members are elected, not appointed. In most other counties, two elections board members are appointed by each political party, Democrat and Republican. A fifth member of the election board, needed to be able to break potential tie votes, is appointed in a nonpartisan way, perhaps by a judge, or by a consensus of the four other members. Chatham county is also different, in that it has a separate Board of Registration, which oversees voter registration and absentee voting.
In the recent legislative session, Senator Buddy Carter tried to introduce local legislation that would have combined the two boards, and made elections board members appointed, not elected. He even argued that elected elections board members was illegal under Georgia law.
It is vitally important that we have fair elections. Being on a county’s election board can be a thankless job. Ideally, its members should rise above their party allegiances to ensure everything they deal with is treated fairly and equitably. The case of James Hall shows how political agendas can turn that upside down. And apparently, the Chatham elections board hasn’t been consistent in the way it deals with candidates and potential challenges.
Representing Hall in his appeal is State Senator Josh McKoon. When asked for comment, he said:
James Hall is exactly the sort of person that we should want to run for office. Young, energetic and excited about his community. It is incredible that the Board of Elections is doing these mental gymnastics to twist the statute to say James cannot stand for election. It is my hope that upon being reviewed by the court that the common sense interpretation of the law will prevail and the people of Chatham County will have the choice to vote for James this year.
For his part, Hall is confident he will win his case, even if he has to take it to the Georgia Supreme Court.
And if he does, he’ll still have to face Marianne Heimes in a primary election before he can serve on the board.