A highly anticipated hearing in Screven County lasted more than three hours last week and yielded a decision by a judge to order a new election after testimony revealed ‘irregularities’ in the 2022 election.
On November 18, 2022, Screven County Commissioners Allison Willis and Mike Dixon, candidate for county commissioner in District 1 Tyler Thompson, Vicki T. Reddick, and Michael Lloyd Waters, filed a lawsuit against Elections Superintendent Debbie Brown, Elections Supervisor Hannah Derriso, and Commissioner Edwin Lovett. The five contended that the wrong ballots had been issued to at least two dozen voters in District 1, and that the incorrect ballots may have had an impact on the county commission race in that district that had a margin of just seven votes.
On December 4, 2022, attorneys for Brown, Derriso, and Lovett filed a response, arguing that they were the wrong parties to sue and that the Chief Registrar should be sued instead. Tenured Chief Registrar Dorothy Glisson was added to the suit shortly thereafter, but the plaintiffs did not drop the suit against the other three, in which they asked a judge to order a new election for the District 1 county commission race.
Senior Judge Michael Karpf, a longtime judge from Chatham County, was appointed in November to oversee the proceedings and he subsequently scheduled a hearing for December 22.
The courtroom was fairly full Thursday with upwards of thirty people in attendance, including Commission Chairman Will Boyd, Commissioner John Triplett, and Commissioner Rosa Romeo who was seen dozing off on a handful of occasions during the three hour hearing at the courthouse.
Watch Part 1 of the hearing
Watch Part 2 of the hearing
Testimony from Commissioner Allison Willis
Commissioner Allison Willis took the stand first on Thursday to detail when she first became aware of the election irregularities and the actions that she took afterward. Willis told the Court that she learned of issues on the morning of Wednesday, November 9 – the day after the election – when she ran into the wife of Plaintiff Michael Waters at a local store. Waters stated she did not vote in the county commission race in District 1 because it was not on her ballot.
Subsequently, Willis spent the next six hours going through the registrations on district lines by comparing the map on record at the Commissioner’s Office to the data from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. She said she found what she believed to be a number of ‘improper assignments’ for voters with respect to their districts. To be sure, she and others later reached out to voters directly to ask them not who they voted for but whether or not their ballots reflected a race between Lovett and Thompson.
Long asked Willis if Commissioners voted on the new maps used in the most recent election cycle, to which Willis answered that commissioners voted, at the direction of then-county attorney Hubert Reeves – to adopt the maps from the state reapportionment office. That happened on January 5, 2021 for a special-called meeting. Willis referenced a letter from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office which stated if commissioners had a concern about getting everything done in time for the upcoming elections, they should reconsider the changes.
The changes, Willis testified, were not ones made by commissioners themselves, but ones determined by the state and which sliced some roads in the district down the center, placing one side of the road in one district and the other side of the road in another.
On cross examination by Rountree, Willis stated that she looked at other homes and registrations in her district and a handful of others, but did not initiate further investigation because the other races were either unopposed or the margin of error was not substantial to the number of individuals believed to be incorrectly assigned. Rountree pressed Willis on why she did not initiate investigations or lawsuits in those areas, to which Willis replied, “I would argue on behalf of just one person, but the law will not allow that.”
Testimony from Plaintiff Michael L. Waters
Long called Michael Waters to the stand to attest to his voter registration status and the fact that he did not receive a ballot with a District 1 County Commission race on it. While he testified, Elections Superintendent Debbie Brown was heard loudly contesting what Waters was saying as she shook her head ‘no.’ On cross examination, Rountree asked Waters to distinguish between his property and his father’s property, where his voter registration was reportedly assigned. Waters had provided the court with a slew of documents showing his residency was on the other side of the road at his own residence, not where his voter registration was assigned.
Voters in District 1 Who Did Not Get to Vote in District 1 Race
Heather Howard testified that she voted early at the Elections Office and subsequently did not vote at her normal precinct. She says she did not realize until several days later that her ballot did not have a county commission race on it. She testified that she was unaware that the district lines had changed.
Mary Virginia Thompson Delaigle testified that she, her husband, and her son voted early at the elections office and not at the normal precinct. She said she can only speak to what was on her ballot, but no commission race appeared on her ballot and she did not know there was a race missing.
Susie Patrick testified that she, her husband, and her mother all reside in the same place. Patrick and her husband voted on election day while her mother voted early at the elections office. To her knowledge, none of them had a ballot with the county commission race for the district in which they reside. During her testimony, she said her family had been assigned in the wrong district since at least 2010.
Teresa Luckie testified that she lives in District 1 but has been voting in District 6 without issue. She testified that she learned the day after the election that she may have voted in the wrong district. On cross examination, Rountree asked Luckie if she reviewed her voter registration card before going to the polls and if she knew she was voting in the wrong district. Luckie stated she did not and testified that she relied on elections officials to give her the correct ballot.
Voters Who Do Not Reside in District 1 But Voted in District 1 Race
Two individuals who live on Beaver Creek Drive were called to the stand to testify on their November 8 ballots. The first testified that she was unaware if she voted for a county commission race or if she was given the correct ballot. She testified that she relied on the elections officials to provide the correct information. Judge Karpf asked her whose names appeared on the ballot for the commission race, to which the witness stated ‘Lovett and a lady’s name.’
“A lady’s name?” Judge Karpf asked.
“Well, there were two names. One was Lovett,” she said.
The second individual testified that she was given a ballot with Thompson and Lovett on it, but she actually resides in District 2. She testified she did not know her district had changed and she did not know anything was wrong with her ballot until after the fact.
A third individual, who lives in District 2, testified that she did not know who was on the ballot, was unsure if she voted for a county commissioner in District 1, and did not look at her voter registration card. On cross examination, when asked if she remembered ‘anything about the ballot,’ she replied ‘no.’
Testimony from Chief Registrar Dorothy Glisson
Glisson read a prepared statement for the court before she was questioned. During that statement, among other things, Glisson shared that after learning of the shortened timeline and after the hiring of Hannah Derriso as Elections Supervisor by Debbie Brown, Derriso offered to do the process for her.
“She and I had conversations about the difficulty and my hopes in getting the process completed on time. As a result, she graciously offered to do the process for me, saying ‘I know how and I can do this.’ I was very thankful and shared with her all of my contacts which she immediately engaged with in her endeavor to successfully help complete the redistricting process. In the redistricting process that Hannah did, I would have thought that the voters in question would have been moved to the correct precinct as the maps would have shown them as residing in that district.”
“I personally agree that unintentional mistakes have been made, but it is something that can be and will be corrected,” Glisson read.
Glisson also detailed the lengths to which she went to try to complete her duties in the redistricting as she had done at least twice before.
During questioning, Glisson stated that her office sent out precinct cards to voters impacted by the redistricting changes, but some of the cards were returned and ‘undeliverable.’ She said the office maintained those cards in the event that a voter came to the office with questions and so she could prove she made good faith efforts to contact them at their address on record.
Judge Karpf asked Glisson how many voters were potentially assigned incorrectly following her evaluation of the voter rolls, to which she replied ‘41 or 42,’ of which she believed 19 involved District 1.
You can watch her complete prepared statement below.
Testimony from Candidate for Commission 1 – Tyler Thompson
Tyler Thompson, candidate for the county commission seat in question, testified briefly, only to share that the incorrectly assigned voters could have made a difference in the outcome of his race. Commissioner Mike Dixon, whose district is adjacent to District 1, also testified that the contested race is a testament to the statement that ‘every vote counts.’
Testimony from Elections Supervisor Hannah Derriso
Derriso was on the stand for roughly twenty minutes. She detailed her duties and responsibilities and outlined her role in ensuring the voting process is completed correctly. She testified that she was hired in February 2022, approximately one month after the redistricting process was underway. Derriso was asked if she knew how many voters voted in the wrong district and replied,
“There were errors made all around the county. Some had to do with redistricting.”Elections Supervisor Hannah Derriso
Derriso also testified that there were no legal votes that were illegally or improperly rejected.
During questioning by Attorney Long, Derriso was presented with a series of text messages in which she stated she did not want the news of possible elections issues to get out until they [the elections office] had it all figured out.
“Did you figure it all out after this?” Long asked.
“Oh Gosh no. We are still trying to figure it out. I just learned of more problematic voters today,” Derriso answered.
“We will fix it no matter what it takes,” she said.
“What have you done to fix it?” Long asked.
“Uh…we’ve talked to the state, the county attorney,” she replied.
The testimony is a contrast to Derriso’s statements after TGV News broke the news of the lawsuit on November 18. She contacted TGV News directly to comment, saying:
“How about checking with the people who are actually being sued to see if any of the claims hold any credibility whatsoever.
Also, nobody issued incorrect ballots. Get your facts right.”
Attorneys for Derriso, Brown, and Lovett Make Their Arguments
Following the Plaintiffs completion of their case around 3:30 p.m., Rountree asked for an opportunity to present an argument to the judge as to why the case should be dismissed.
He argued that no legal votes were rejected and no illegal votes were accepted. Referencing the testimony from Derriso, Rountree said “she gave the definition of illegal votes and it did not include a ‘person who is assigned to vote in one district when they actually reside in a different district.’ “That is not an illegal vote,” he told Judge Karpf.
Rountree cited a case (Taggart v. Phillips) in which the court ruled that the only votes that count are the ones cast in a specific election. He said that because the votes cast by the people given the wrong ballot were for another election and not the District 1 election, they were not illegal votes.
“Not voting in this election is not an illegal vote,” Rountree told the court. “What we have here is over 700 people who voted correctly. And those 700 people deserve to have their votes counted and if this election is deemed to be a ‘do over,’ all those people have to go do it again. When the people complaining had the chance to do it right the first time…they had lots of chances to get it right, they still got it wrong. Not intentionally, but they did.”
Karpf asked Rountree if it was his position that the burden is on the individual voter, not the registrar or the election officials, to make sure the ballots are correct and the information in the system is correct. Rountree replied ‘yes.’
Rountree closed by saying, “I would say between those folks who did make a mistake and the 713 people who didn’t make a mistake, those 713 shouldn’t be required to do it again.”
Attorney Ben Perkins then made a similar argument, saying “the evidence hasn’t established a single illegal vote cast or a legal vote rejected. He cited the 2007 case McIntosh v. Diverger, which Judge Karpf openly contested as it pertains to what the legal standards are in determining when votes are ‘illegal.’
With no further argument, the court recessed for Judge Karpf to return to his chambers.
Decision by Judge Karpf
After a seventeen minute recess, Judge Karpf returned to the bench. He handily rejected the arguments by Rountree and Perkins, citing a 2021 case by the Georgia Supreme Court (Smith v. Long County). That case superseded the other two rulings cited by attorneys and established two prongs:
- If the number of illegal votes exceeds the margin of the election results, that is sufficient grounds to set aside the election; and
- If there are systemic irregularities in the elections process that are ‘sufficiently egregious’ to cast doubt on the result.
“And we at least have that,” Karpf said, referring to the second bullet point.
Karpf rejected Derriso’s definition of what constitutes an illegal vote, saying “her opinion is not binding on me.”
“Where some electors were entitled to vote but not allowed to and where other electors were allowed to vote when they shouldn’t have been…has illegality,” he told the parties.
He also belabored that he believed the mistakes were unintentional, but are present nevertheless, warranting a new election. “It was clearly unintentional. It was clearly affected by external circumstances, primarily the timing of it.”
“Twenty votes is sufficiently egregious because it could have changed the result,” Karpf said before announcing he would be granting the Plaintiff’s Petition to set aside the elections.
Karpf told the parties that a new order would likely not be signed until after the first of the year to allow for adequate time to remedy issues with voter assignment and to ensure enough time exists before the call for a special election.
After handling the administrative matters, Karpf echoed his position: “I take your point about 700 people voting again, but it’s got to be a fair election. I reject the contention that it’s on the individual voter to know he or she is in the wrong district, particularly when the line is changed [down the middle of a single road,] at the last minute…I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s correct.”
Watch the decision by the judge: