In 2009, Sandy Springs unsuccessfully sought Fulton County’s permission to run its own municipal elections, saying money could be saved. This year, Sandy Springs was forced to run its own special election for the District 3 City Council seat—at an estimated cost of more than $100,000—sparking renewed talk of self-run city polls.

Poll manager Alicia Volk, right, feeds a ballot into a counting machine at City Hall while City Clerk Michael Casey looks on during the vote-counting after the May 24 City Council District 3 special election. (Photo Phil Mosier)

City officials say they’re too busy running the election, which is heading into a June 21 runoff, to seriously consider the future. But they also suggest the city’s first-ever self-run election is a natural conversation-starter as the city heads into regularly scheduled elections next year.

“It’s something we’ve talked about before, but we haven’t talked about it aligned with this election,” said city spokesperson Sharon Kraun. “After the election, I think there’d be conversation.”

There already was some talk on the night of the original May 24 special election, when Mayor Rusty Paul attended the ballot count at City Hall and repeatedly commented on how the city should use better counting machines in any future election.

At one point, the mayor called City Council member Tibby DeJulio and said, “If we’re going run our own elections, we’ve got to invest in some technology.”

While the final numbers aren’t in, some pros and cons of city-run voting are emerging. City officials are pleased with the relatively high turnout for the May 24 vote: about 16 percent of active registered voters. On the other hand, the election is under investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, apparently for having only a single polling place.

Then there’s the cost, estimated at about $108,000 for the original and runoff elections. The number was big enough to become a local campaign issue, and the May 24 special election was estimated to cost nearly five times the amount the county charged to run a similar special election in 2011.

The District 3 special election was required when City Council member Graham McDonald resigned in March to make an unsuccessful run for the House District 52 seat.

The city originally intended to follow the standard practice of contracting with the county to run the election. That would have meant putting the City Council race on the ballot along with state and federal offices in either the May 24 primary or Nov. 8 general elections.

The City Council wanted the seat filled as soon as possible and chose the May 24 date. But election law requires 90-day notice for the county to run a city election, and that deadline had already passed. To stick with May 24, the city had to run the election itself at separate polls and at its own expense.
City staff estimated the cost at $72,343 for the special election and $35,230.50 for a runoff. The City Council decided the cost was worth it.

During the city’s 2009 attempt to run its own elections, City Attorney Wendell Willard said a study showed the plan could be 40 to 50 percent less expensive than the county’s election-running fees.

Fulton Chairman John Eaves, who led the county’s rejection of the plan, even acknowledged at the time that, “in fact, Sandy Springs could probably save money by conducting their own election” by finding fee-free polling places, using fewer poll workers and ballots, and setting lowering staff pay rates.

But this year’s city-run special election is estimated to cost far more than the last county-run special election. That 2011 District 4 election, won by Gabriel Sterling, was estimated at the time to cost $15,400, or $29,645, if a runoff had been needed. This year’s special election had five candidates, while the 2011 race had only three. The last full election for mayor and all six City Council seats cost the city about $183,000, city records show.

Poll volunteer April Persons, left, and poll manager Alicia Volk deliver ballots to City Hall on May 24 after the City Council District 3 special election. (Photo Phil Mosier)

In a recent interview, Willard said one reason the city has not raised the self-run elections issue again is the fact that the county already has a system in place. “We would have to build our own [elections] structure,” he said.

Kraun said the May 24 election is a model to allow city officials to decide what they want in the future, likening it to shopping for clothes. “You always want to try it before you wear it,” she said.

The majority of this year’s election costs went to the “professional services” of planning the election, training poll workers and supervising the polls. Those services were provided by consultant Gary Smith, a former Forsyth County elections director.

Smith also runs municipal elections for the city of Peachtree Corners in Gwinnett County. Peachtree Corners also held a special City Council special election on May 24. It cost about $30,000, according to city spokesperson Judy Putnam. It was a two-way race, with roughly half the amount of ballots cast as the Sandy Springs race, according to the Peachtree Corners city website.

In Sandy Springs, the expense and competition with county polling places meant that District 3 special election voting was done at only a single polling place. That drew an investigation by the Secretary of State’s office, which supervises elections. “I think the issue is, why did we make the determination to make one polling place as opposed to multiple polling places?” Willard said.

City officials say the Secretary of State was aware of the election plan from the start. They point to the relatively high turnout as an indication that voters were not confused about where to cast ballots. The result of the investigation is likely to be a big factor in whether the city runs future elections.

“We’ll cross that race when we come to it,” Willard joked.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the number of candidates in the 2011 city special election.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.