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Prior to 2020, only a few people in Atlanta knew the name Janine Eveler.
But the Cobb County elections director became something of a reluctant celebrity following the chaotic November 2020 presidential election. COVID-19 restrictions, complicated voting procedures, plus struggles with new voting machines led to long lines and complaints. Things got uglier following former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen.
Georgia became a battleground over the fate of the presidential election, and Eveler and her metro-Atlanta counterparts got a lot of hate mail, angry phone calls and even death threats in response.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that election directors in Gwinnett, DeKalb, and Fulton Counties all have since resigned, leaving Eveler as the last official standing among metro Atlanta’s largest counties. But on the eve of yet another controversial election—the runoffs for the newly created city of Mableton, Georgia in Cobb County—Eveler is also on her way out.
Before Eveler departs on April 15 after 12 years on the job, she gave an exit interview to Atlanta Civic Circle about the roller-coaster ride of election scrutiny and the state of democracy in the region. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Georgia elections have gotten a lot of attention—locally and nationally—over the last few years. What effect do you think that’s had on your office and elections in Cobb County?
There’s definitely more scrutiny and more people interested in our procedures. Prior to 2018, we had observers, we were open to people watching us in our work, but not very many people did. I think now people are learning more about the process of administering elections—what safeguards are in place already? We have actually learned a lot as well, because–through the public’s observations and asking in open records requests, or just asking–we’ve learned places where we have gaps. And so, we’ve been able to fill those gaps and put together tighter procedures because of that scrutiny. I think we’re better for it, actually.
Once the angst and the anger and vitriol calmed down a bit, people just became interested in our processes, and made suggestions, and asked for, say, a chain-of-custody document. We were able to fill gaps and make for tighter and more secure processes because of the questions we were getting from the interested public.
You’ve talked previously about the angry emails and phone calls you’ve gotten. How bad did it get in your office?
We had a rough time at the beginning of 2021–the end of 2020, and the first part of 2021–which I think was pretty widespread during that period of time. We had some off-site locations where they were getting a lot of people sort of stalking the employees and following them. We had to shut a couple of places down some days, because the employees were just nervous about having those people so aggressively following them. And there were phone calls and angry words and things, but I never felt physically threatened by any of that.
The state Legislature just voted to ban outside money to help local governments run elections—a reaction to the at least $400 million dollars contributed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2020 via the Center for Tech and Civic Life. How did you feel about that bill?
Well, elections cost a lot of money these days, and counties need some help in paying for a lot of it. That’s why they took advantage of some of these grants that were offered, including the one that we took advantage of in 2020. We were mandated to change our voting system here in Georgia, and the state funded the replacement of the systems. But there were many components to that system, and we had no help in how to transport them or how to set it up easily for our poll workers.
We received over $6 million from the [Center for Tech and Civic Life] grant. There were no strings attached. So I don’t really understand what the threat is [ from outside funds], but that’s what the Legislature has come up with. I’m hoping that they will help counties with funding in lieu of outside funds, so we won’t have to have to pay so much money for the things that they’re requiring us to do.
Is there any indication that the state is going to give you more funding in lieu of grant money?
What they were saying in the committee meetings [during the recent legislative session] is that the grants are still available for the State Election Board to pursue, and then they would distribute the funds equally among all the counties. Personally, I don’t see that happening, as an initiative from the State Election Board. They don’t have any staff. So, the counties will have to foot the bill, which affects county budgets. We’re fortunate to be in it in a county that’s fiscally pretty well off, and I’ve gotten a lot of support from my county leaders–but there are counties that don’t have that situation.
What would be on your wish list of issues that need to be addressed?
One of the things elections officials asked the Legislature for is to do something about the four-week period mandated from an election to a runoff. That is an extreme hardship on the counties that have to turn over from an election to a runoff in 28 days. There were several [legislative] options that were on the table: Ranked choice voting in the election, extending the period until a runoff by a week or two weeks, or a number of different options. Any of them would have been better than the situation we’re in right now. But they didn’t want to solve that problem.
What advice would you give to your successor?
I have tried to care for this process, because it’s so valuable. And I tell my staff all the time: What you do is so very important for our community and our free way of life. And I’ve just tried to nurture the process and the people here, so that when I leave, I can hand over something valuable, just like I received it, and my successor can continue that nurturing.
What is your most important accomplishment–and regret–in this role?
I think my greatest accomplishment is that we were able to convince our county leadership that we needed a new space [for the Cobb County Elections and Registrations office]. Last July, we moved into a new building that I had been really talking about for nine years. I kind of consider that my legacy, because it sets this department up for success for many years to come.
Do you worry about the future of voting and of democracy in Cobb County–and Georgia as a whole?
I don’t think I worry about it. When I first started this position, one [political] party was more observant and more involved. And now it’s the other party. And the first set of people, they kind of are hands-off now. I think that different things become important to the community at different times, and it’ll swing back the other way. I don’t think it’ll get worse. I think it’ll just be different.