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Longtime elections official signs out

Smith plans to stay involved in process

POSTED: June 7, 2010 9:00 a.m.
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Gary J. Smith

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After eight years, Monday’s meeting of the Forsyth County Board of Elections will be Gary J. Smith’s last as chairman.

“It has changed significantly from when I first came onto it,” Smith said. “But I’m really excited about the new appointments to the board with Matt Blender and Doug Sorrells.

“It will be enjoyable to sit back and know the elections in Forsyth County are in good hands of a great staff, good poll workers and a good board. I think they’re going to do a great job.”

When Smith was appointed by Judge Stan Gault in 2002, the county and state were still using punch cards for elections.

While he didn’t come up with the idea to make the switch to electronic voting machines, Smith embraced the use of technology.

“He kept up with the electronic voting standard and he kept us abreast with the most modern electronics,” said Janice Thomas, who served as the board's Democratic representative for nearly two decades.

“We were among the first to have it in the state, and it went so well that he would encourage other counties to get it if they had the money."
Thomas, who stepped down in late 2009, said she and Smith "didn’t always agree."

"But the bottom line was in the outcome," she said. "We did what was good for the people in the county.”

The 2004 presidential election was the county’s first using electronic voting machines. It was also one of the most memorable for Smith.

“We had one of the highest percentages of turnouts in the state of Georgia,” he said. “That just says we did our job right in getting the equipment out, getting it in place and getting it started up.

“It was a well-oiled machine.”

Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Bagley, who reappointed Smith to the post in 2006, will be charged with naming a replacement before Smith’s last day June 30.

“I think whoever the judge appoints will be fully qualified,” Thomas said. “I have confidence in Judge Bagley’s selection.”

Thanks to a recent change in county law, one person who can’t be considered to replace Smith is Barbara Luth, supervisor of elections for the county.

Following 15 years working in Gwinnett County’s elections department, Luth came to Forsyth as Smith’s assistant prior to being named supervisor.

“He was an excellent mentor,” she said. “I’m glad I came over to work with him and got the opportunity to work with him before he left.

“He is very innovative and tries to do a lot of new things to make voting easier, and he has done that.”

This month won’t signal the end of Smith's involvement in elections. In fact, with all of his past national and international work, he said it’s just the beginning.

Smith will continue his work with the Georgia Election Officials Association, where he serves as vice chairman.

He also chairs the Lanier Technical College Foundation and is a consultant with an area election consultant company.

Smith said he will also work on a new project called the Wounded Warrior initiative, designing measures to give those wounded in combat easier access to voting.

His role in the initiative follows his work on the board of Operation BRAVO Foundation, which seeks to create an effective way for overseas voters to electronically participate in elections.

During his time with the local elections board, Smith was one of the first to offer real-time tracking of election results online.

“He won an award for his online tracking,” Luth said. “He’s done other scanning and absentee programs and things to make it easier within the office.”

Smith, Thomas and Brant Meadows, the former Republican representative on the county election panel, introduced electronic voting to high school students.

The effort allowed teenagers to use the machines for their student government elections. The goal was to familiarize students with the machines so they would be less hesitant to use them when they became old enough to vote.

“We always strived for early voting and getting them interested while they were young,” Thomas said.

The in-school mock elections became so popular, MTV ran a special with Drew Barrymore that highlighted Forsyth’s elections.

“It was pretty exciting,” Smith said. “The idea was to bring high school students into our election process because students learn fast. They’re used to using computers, and I’ll tell you, we really welcomed them because of their ability and energy.”

As Smith moves on, he said the elections board will be faced with new challenges, including redistricting and upgrading technology.

He said he will miss working with the county, but will still be "involved in the process."

“I’m going to be working more on the state and national level,” he said. “I don’t intend to be less active in elections in the next eight years than I have been in the last eight years. I’ll just be involved in a different level ... and I couldn’t have done these things without what I had done with Forsyth.

“It’s going to be a great time and I’m looking forward to it.”
 

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