Elections and the election process are under scrutiny more than ever at the state and national levels.
As such, Todd Blackwell, the man who doubles as Baldwin County’s elections supervisor and probate judge, said he believes the county needs someone whose primary job is election oversight. That was his message to county commissioners Tuesday during the elected board’s work session. He cited ever-changing election rules and laws, added methods of voting, and the growing amount of time it takes to prepare for elections as reasons for wanting a change.
“I do not believe that we’re in a position anymore that election supervision can be a secondary function of an office,” Blackwell said.
He proposed that a board of elections be created locally to guide the democratic process. Multiple commissioners expressed apprehension about such a move, citing the exemplary job Blackwell has done these last 20-plus years overseeing Baldwin County’s elections. In that timeframe, more than 70 elections have been held.
“I’m proud of the fact that I've never had to appear before the state election board,” said Blackwell. “We’ve always managed — sometimes by prayer, sometimes by luck and sometimes by skill — to avoid any of the pitfalls that you see from other counties.”
Among other duties, the Georgia Election Board investigates election wrongdoing and reports violations to the state attorney general or appropriate district attorney.
It’s facts like Blackwell’s clean record that had Commission chair Henry Craig saying multiple times throughout Tuesday’s discussion that he would go “kicking and screaming” to a board of elections model and away from Blackwell as supervisor.
A lot has changed with elections in the 22 years since Blackwell came on as supervisor. He told commissioners that when he first started, the process could be completed in a couple of weeks beginning with training poll workers and programming voting machines up through when election results were certified. The procedure has become much more drawn out over the last two decades, though. Now, there are three weeks of early voting and programming the machines takes longer. Blackwell stated that those differences make elections a five-week process, which is taking away from his main job as probate judge.
“I can continue on and conduct successful elections,” he said. “The problem is that I have another job at the courthouse that’s suffering, honestly. There’s a price to pay for the time that elections now take.”
When it comes to elections supervision and serving as probate judge, Blackwell could be considered a dying breed in Georgia. He told commissioners that when he started, 110 counties across the state had an individual who doubled as probate judge and elections supervisor. That number has dwindled mightily over the last 20 years to only about 30 counties that have a person to oversee both. Out of the five counties it touches, Baldwin is the only one to continue on with the dual model. Those other counties have boards of elections who handle both voter registration and election supervision.
Ironically, Blackwell pleaded his case to commissioners on Election Day in Georgia. The states’ voters went to the polls Tuesday to elect U.S. senators and a public service commissioner. Blackwell and his office staff had Baldwin County’s full results published just after 9 p.m., only two hours after polls had closed.
No decisions were made Tuesday night on how to ease Blackwell’s burden, but Commission chairman Craig did say that he is open to more discussion. Increasing staff was put forward at one point.
“I’d like to propose that commissioners continue to dialog with each other and you,” said Craig. “We need to do some coordination with the county manager and finance director about opportunities and resources and different courses of action.”
Craig, Westmoreland to stay on as chair, vice chair
Positions of chair and vice chair on the Baldwin County Board of Commissioners will remain with Craig and vice chair Johnny Westmoreland for 2021 following votes held Tuesday during the regular meeting. Both retained their seats in identical 3-2 vote tallies with Craig, Westmoreland and Sammy Hall voting for while Emily Davis and newest commissioner Kendrick Butts voted against.