Recently, Fox 5 Atlanta’s Dale Russell published an article on City of South Fulton Solicitor LaDawn Jones and her voter registration “incentive.” In it, Russell described how Jones offered defendants in municipal court a reduced fine if they registered to vote or had already voted.
From the article:
“On her Twitter feed, Ms. Jones linked to an article describing Taylor Swift’s call for voter registration and proclaimed: “We registered voters in the City of South Fulton today. Everyone got $50 off their citation if they registered or confirmed their registration….
A court clerk told me there were 110 people on Judge Tiffany Seller’s calendar yesterday and that approximately 90 percent took the $50 off their fine to register or showed they had already registered.”
Jones told Fox 5 that she was considering ‘civic involvement’ when determining the fine and noted that she did not ask anyone with which political party they associated.
After reading about the ‘incentives’, I quickly found myself with with some pretty strong opinions on this incident. Perhaps it is the perception of hypocrisy after her calls for criminal charges against Brian Kemp, or maybe it is the blatant disregard for the law, or it could be the “rules for thee but not for me” mentality that seems to emanate from elected and appointed officials these days. Whatever the cause, my opinions and understanding of the law lead me to believe there should be consequences.
Jones is undoubtedly well-versed on the law as a practicing lawyer, a former state representative, and a current prosecutor for a city in one of our state’s largest counties. She also credits herself with a candidate school where she trains political candidates running for office. Jones is a political pundit – including here at GeorgiaPol.com – and talks shop on outlets across the state. She should know better and I believe she does know better.
The municipal judge in the City of South Fulton told Fox 5 that she did not believe any laws were broken, but election law attorney Bryan Tyson is quoted in the Fox 5 article and he later penned his own on Medium where he stated the act was illegal. And a felony.
In Georgia, our laws dictate that you cannot offer another person anything of value in exchange for voter registration, a vote, or a vote for a particular candidate. When federal candidates appear on the ballot as well – like instances Congressional races – it becomes a violation of federal law.
This is not an interpretation of the law either. It is clear as day. O.C.G.A. 21-2-570 reads: Any person who gives or receives, offers to give or receive, or participates in the giving or receiving of money or gifts for the purpose of registering as a voter, voting, or voting for a particular candidate in any primary or election shall be guilty of a felony.
A reduction of a fine owed is money in your pocket, is it not? If so, the reduction of a fine under the discretion of a prosecutor who considered voter registration status in reducing said fine (that is otherwise codified by state law or local ordinance) is a financial gift, is it not?
If you visit the referenced chapter of the Georgia code, most of the other election-related offenses are misdemeanors, but incentivizing or offering gifts in exchange for something related to a vote is a felony…because it is much more serious.
[If you have the time, I encourage you to read Tyson’s article as he does a nice job articulating specific examples of what is and isn’t okay when encouraging “civic duty.”]
Something similar happened in New York in September of this year where gift cards were offered in exchange for voter registration. It was deemed illegal by election law experts there, too. It comes up every election cycle and every election cycle, legal experts remind people NOT to do it.
Federal law is just as stringent and offers stiffer penalties — up to $10,000 in fines and/or imprisonment up to five years. While it requires ‘willful’ commission, federal law does not require that the payment actually be made or that any individuals actually register to vote or vote for the act to be considered committed. This is stricter than state law because it is clear about ‘anything’ of monetary value, which seems to cancels Jones’ defense to the Atlanta Journal Constitution in which she says no money was actually offered.
The Alliance for Justice has a voter advocacy guide the states, “ Similarly, handing out free cupcakes to individuals to register to vote or offering a service at a discounted rate to individuals who provide proof that they voted would be prohibited” under federal law.
Though we could all speculate and grandstand about the political leanings of those who benefitted from the incentive Jones offered, it really is not necessary. This is not a partisan issue – it is an integrity issue that can’t be excused by the idea of civil disobedience or the public interest of ‘civic engagement.’ The integrity of our elections should be sacred.
It is not unusual for municipal judges to be unclear about the law, but I doubt that any action will be taken locally, even with the codified evidence brought to light and Jones’ admission that the act occurred. Not handling it locally leaves a district attorney in another county, the GBI, or federal authorities, given the clear violations of the law.
Whether or not a bar complaint is necessary, or perhaps an ethics complaint in the City of South Fulton, is not for me to decide. But some sort of deterrent to keep this from happening in the future would go a long way.
There should be repercussions for this kind of flagrant behavior that occurred and was showcased on social media after the fact. Jones’ position as solicitor is a position of power and, therefore, sets a higher standard of moral and ethical character. Jones can’t claim ignorance here, but she could claim it was “a mistake.” Much like those who appear before her in the City of South Fulton, Jones knows that state law requires people be held accountable for their “mistakes.”
And if Jones doesn’t like the law, I would encourage her to lobby her elected officials for a change.