Georgia House Speaker David Ralston answers reporter questions in a pre-session briefing in the state capitol on Jan. 7, 2021. Credit: Laura Corley/Stanley R. Boxer

ATLANTA – The legislature is set to consider changing who oversees elections in Georgia during the upcoming session that starts Monday, House Speaker David Ralston said.

Ralston also announced Thursday the creation of a new Election Integrity Committee that will “devote its full attention to ensuring confidence in our elections process moving forward.”

The committee will focus solely on ensuring elections have proper oversight and are open, secure and accessible, he said. Members will be announced next week.

“Our focus is not on looking back but on moving forward,” Ralston said. “We will devote the time and attention necessary to our elections process.”

As of now, elections, along with business licensing and professional licensing, are functions of the Secretary of State’s Office. The secretary, elected every four years, also serves on the state Board of Elections, which is charged with recommendations to the General Assembly regarding election administration and conduction of primaries and elections.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, answers reporter questions following a pre-session briefing in the state capitol on Jan. 7, 2021. (Laura Corley/Stanley R. Boxer)

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office did not have an immediate answer to Stanley R. Boxer’s question of how the new committee might mesh with the state board’s elections duties.

The creation of an appointed Chief Elections Officer position to handle the elections would be explored, too, Ralston said, and would not require voter’s approval.

Ralston also considered a model like Tennessee’s in which the General Assembly appoints the secretary, though that would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment.

“As it stands right now, voters have a say in who the secretary of state is,” said Karen Owen, assistant professor of political science at the University of West Georgia. “It holds that person and candidates accountable to the electorate that they are administering elections, with integrity with fairness, and that everyone sees that and if voters don't like it, of course, they can, in four years, select somebody else.”

Karen Owen, assistant professor of political science at the University of West Georgia

A Chief Elections Officer would have to work within the constitutional powers of the Secretary of State, which would require coordination and could result in duplicate work, she said. 

“It would be really complicated as to who's accountable to the voter and who's accountable to the General Assembly,” Owen said.

However there are some benefits to having a position that specializes in elections.

“You could put into place someone who could manage that system much more efficiently and effectively because they know the ins-and-outs of everything,” Owen said, comparing the nonpartisan, appointed role to employees in the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office.

There are pros and cons to each of Ralston’s proposals, she said, but ultimately what it “adds is just another layer of politics to be played.”

The historically Republican state voted for President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, and two Democratic senators this year.

Despite the lack of evidence of voter fraud, many people believe something was amiss with the election. The falsehoods about fraud were repeated by President Trump on Wednesday even as his supporters rioted and vandalized the U.S. Capitol building.

“Even if you have one friend telling you, you know, they saw an irregularity, (it) just gives you the perception that something’s going on in the voting system,” Owen said. “So, as elected officials, they're hearing from constituents that they don't trust the system, they don't trust the elections, they don't trust going in and actually, you know, casting a ballot. … I think that's why you hear this conversation right now going on, even though it's really not a broken system in any way.”

Laura Corley is an investigative reporter who has covered public safety and government and education in her home state of Georgia since 2014. At The (Macon) Telegraph, Laura used open records requests...