The ACC Commission declined to reappoint Chairperson Jesse Evans and Vice Chairperson Charles Knapper in a clean sweep of the ACC Board of Elections’ leadership last week.
Evans in particular has been a controversial figure during his first term on the board. The Athens GOP called for his removal months ago, and he was often at loggerheads internally with elections staff as well. Evans at times expressed public doubts about his own agency’s commitment to ensuring smooth elections and expanding voting opportunities.
For example, Evans blasted Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee for appearing to blame voters for the long lines seen at polling places during the 2018 election, as reported by Flagpole.
Many commissioners agree with Evans that the 2018 election was not handled well by local elections staff and have criticized Sosebee for her comments. Despite their agreement, some commissioners maintain that Evans’ continued, strident negativity towards staff may actually have drawn focus away from solving these issues. This led to a dysfunctional and toxic relationship between the board and ACC elections staff whom they oversee.
Equally important to commissioners was the board’s decision to switch to hand-marked paper ballots back in March. This decision was made not only against Sosebee’s advice but also Attorney Judd Drake’s, who considered it a violation of state law.
The State Elections Board agreed with Drake during a hearing convened on March 11, potentially putting Athens on the hook for millions of dollars in fines. Fortunately, the state board chose to be lenient, levying a fine of a few thousand dollars only. They also instructed the ACC Board of Elections to switch back to ballot marking devices, which are legally-mandated.
Evans was not satisfied with this outcome and wanted to appeal, although the board as a whole eventually decided to accept the state’s decision.
During the hearing, which at times resembled a trial, the ACC Board of Elections employed two lawyers to advocate for the legality of hand-marked paper ballots. One of the two was recommended by Drake, who felt obligated to recuse himself from the case. The other, Bryan Sells, was hired by the ACC Board of Elections even though they did not have the authority to do so.
When it came time to pay Sells for his work, the commission seriously debated whether they should refuse. The late Commissioner Jerry NeSmith actually voted against paying him, saying it would be “a terrible precedent” if citizens serving on the county’s various boards and commissions thought they had free rein to spend taxpayer money without official approval.
The commission reluctantly agreed to pay Sells $23,618 for his work during the State Elections Board hearing.
All of these factors contributed to the decision not to reappoint Evans, but even so, he was not completely without commission support. Commissioner Melissa Link said she appreciates Evans’ “aggressiveness” in holding ACC elections staff accountable for the various problems voters have experienced in recent elections, such as the long lines mentioned earlier, which were caused by a reduced number of polling locations in 2018.
“There’s a lack of eagerness [among staff] to expand the franchise. I have deep, deep concerns about staff’s seeming reluctance to follow the direction of the board,” she said.
Despite support for the current board’s leadership from Link and other commissioners, the commission ultimately chose to appoint Adam Shirley and Hunaid Qadir to replace Evans and Knapper. Both Shirley and Qadir have experience serving on local government committees. Qadir, a computer programmer, also has technical experience working with voting machines, making him a uniquely qualified applicant.
“The fact of the matter is, we did have really good candidates for those positions,” Link said.
Shirley and Qadir will serve for four years, joining Willa Fambrough, Patricia Till and Rocky Raffle on the ACC Board of Elections.
Fambrough, also a strong supporter of Evans, took to social media to express her dismay about Evans’ forced exit from the board.
“What were they thinking? Under his [Evan’s] leadership, polling place have been un merged [sic], expanded early voting, more early voting places, especially for black and brown people. There was more focus on ease of voting for the citizen, than there ever has been,” she said.