The year 2020 has been a challenge for everyone. The Coronavirus has upended our daily lives; the presidential election cleaved the nation into rhetorical warring parties; and the calls for more accountability of violent police encounters involving minorities led to marching in the streets in cities large and small.
Not since 1968, has the nation faced the kinds of crises it saw in 2020.
Everyone has felt the impact of those events, but one person in Jackson County has perhaps been in the eye of the storm more than the rest of us, having to do battle on multiple fronts throughout the year.
If Jackson County elections director Jennifer Logan were the captain of a ship, she would undoubtedly get a gold medal for bravery and skill in navigating between multiple icebergs in the middle of a storm with a ship that at times had a leaking hull.
Logan's calmness in the face of that chaos and her ability to conduct multiple elections amid all the strife make her our Newsmaker of the Year for 2020.
WINDING PATH TO JOB
Logan's path to becoming the county's elections director is perhaps a little unusual. She has not been a career bureaucrat, climbing the usual institutional ladders associated with government work.
Jennifer grew up in Clayton County southwest of Atlanta and after graduating from Jonesboro High School, went to Clayton State College where she majored in business administration. After college, she worked in accounting at several businesses, including a stint at a Dunkin Donuts distribution center.
In 2000, she married her high school sweetheart, Joel Logan, and the two settled in Hampton where they began their family. For a time, Jennifer stayed home with their young children.
In 2007, Joel was hired as Jackson County's GIS director and the Logans moved to Jackson County. Jennifer became secretary at Madison Street Baptist Church in Commerce where she also helped run the church's bible school programs. She was also involved as a volunteer with Commerce Cub Scouts.
Meanwhile, as a techie with computer expertise, Joel began helping in the county's elections with the technology and election night reporting. He also helped the transition of local elections go from the Probate Court to what had been the county's board of registration.
His work there apparently rubbed off on Jennifer, too. In 2014, the elections office had an opening and Jennifer was hired, beginning her career in public service.
"When she first started, I remember how eager she was to learn everything she could about elections and elections law and code," Joel said. "She would read and read and study the various codes and laws for the State of Georgia. She quickly got her certifications and training from the State of Georgia and in no time was very knowledgeable about elections and the voter registration side of the department as well as all of the technology and equipment at the time."
Jennifer excelled at understanding the complex elections technology and quickly became the go-to person in the office. When the county's elections director was hired away by Hall County in 2018, Logan was named Jackson County's elections director.
While it was clear that Logan had found her niche with a job she loved, what wasn't clear when she was appointed director in 2018 was the gathering of clouds that would soon challenge her and the elections office like never before.
Two things happened that would have a direct impact on the county's elections system.
First, the state decided to buy a totally new voting system, one that had a paper backup system. The process was fast-tracked — critics said rushed — and the rollout of the new system left little time for local county officials like Logan to prepare for the 2020 elections.
The second event that hit locally was the politicization of the Jackson County Board of Elections in 2019. When the responsibility for elections moved from the Probate Judge's Office to an elections board in 2011, that board was the three-member board of registration led by Ponchie Beck, a long-time elections leader in the county who commanded a lot of respect.
For the most part, the three-member board was non-partisan and low-key. Few people in the county even knew who was on that board.
But in 2019, Rep. Tommy Benton, pushed by former Jackson County Republican chairman Ron Johnson who had been named as chairman of the elections board in late 2018, abolished that three-member board and created a five-member elections board with four of the members appointed by the local political parties, making what had been a non-partisan group directly partisan.
Johnson's being named as elections board chairman was suspect from the start. Although elections board chairmen are supposed to be non-political, Johnson continued his work with the state GOP. After the other two members on the board complained to the court about the situation, Johnson resigned as chairman in mid-2019, just before the new five-member board took office.
But Johnson's politicization of the board had set into motion a headache for Logan, who found herself not only juggling the day-to-day responsibility of running elections and adopting a new elections system and training poll workers for 2020, but also navigating what had quickly become a board of partisan bickering, big egos and internal strife.
Of the two issues, the new elections system proved to be the easier mountain to climb. With that, Logan soon became "the" expert.
"Training and documentation on how to use the system was either vague or non existent," said husband Joel Logan. "I saw Jennifer excel and learn how to use the new equipment by spending countless hours working through issues and figuring out how to use it when there was almost none or very little help from the State of Georgia or their vendor. Other election people in counties all over and often the State themselves will contact her for help and with questions because she has become so knowledgeable on the new system and equipment."
While Logan adjusted to the new equipment, adjusting to a bickering, partisan elections board was a bigger problem. Meetings soon became lengthy with a slew of off-topic discussions and rants. After Johnson quit in 2019, there was hope the board would stabilize, but that only lasted a short time.
In early 2020, the elections board faced a difficult decision regarding a candidate for city council in Hoschton. A citizen of the town challenged the residency of candidate James Lawson. That challenge went to Logan's office where she convened a meeting of the elections board to rule on the issue.
Although the board faces these kinds of challenges occasionally, they aren't common and this one was especially thorny given the tremendous turmoil, including a recall effort, that had been happening in Hoschton during the previous months. Making it more problematic was that one of Logan's elections board members had been directly involved in the political controversy in Hoschton, raising a question of fairness.
The elections board at first ruled that Lawson wasn't a resident and couldn't be a candidate. Lawson sued and a judge ruled in his favor, putting the city's election on hold and instructing the elections board to take another look. In March, it held a second hearing and this time, ruled in Lawson's favor, with one Republican member of the board voting against the decision.
Lawson eventually won at the ballot box, but the episode left the elections board divided and was a sign of things to come. As 2020 moved on, bickering on the board became more intense, sometimes with shouting and personal recriminations aired during meetings.
Logan had to deal with all of that and still do her job despite a fractured board.
The nation knew that there was a dangerous virus in February, but few saw the huge impact it would have.
By March, everything changed. As the pandemic washed over the nation, businesses closed, a stay-at-home order was handed down by the state and everything, it seemed, was put on hold.
That included the March primary elections, which were postponed until May, then postponed again until June.
One thing that wasn't on hold, however, was the planning for the election. Logan and her staff were one of the only county offices still functioning as the virus hit.
"She struggled to bring in as many poll workers who were brave enough to help and the county manager Kevin Poe sent to her several county employees from other departments to help with the insane amount of work," Joel said of last spring's shutdown.
To help keep people safe, the state began to encourage absentee balloting, a move that quickly became controversial.
In May, the elections board voted 4-1 to encourage the state to move to absentee-only voting due to the pandemic. The vote was non-binding and only a suggestion, but it split the local Republican Party. Board member Erma Denny, who pushed the idea, was asked to resign by the local GOP. She didn't resign until later in the year and continued to clash with other board members and local Republican leaders over absentee balloting and a host of other issues.
As a result of the virus, a lot of people did vote absentee in the spring primary, a situation that flooded Logan's elections office with a massive amount of work. Signatures on absentee envelopes have to be matched with signatures on record in the office and verified and absentee ballots then have to be handled in a special way. Absentee voting creates a lot more work than in-person voting for the elections office.
In addition, Logan had to find enough poll workers who would agree to work at voting locations for the primary amid the pandemic.
In the end, the June voting proved to be a massive undertaking. The state hadn't equipped the county with enough scanners for the flood of absentees. And some elections board members at first were reluctant to help with the election night processing of ballots as was traditional. (The board did ultimately help, staying late into the night helping process absentee ballots.)
Amid all the delays and turmoil caused by the virus, Logan was able to rally enough front line poll workers to hold the election and then tally the results. It took time due to the state's equipment shortage, but she had survived what was perhaps the most difficult election in the county's history.
"We knew coming into this year, we would be faced with brand new equipment and a heated presidential election — that alone would make it a challenging year," she said. "But no one could have prepared us for this year! With lots of long 12-18 hour days, lots of weekends and a wonderful, dedicated staff, we managed to overcome the all challenges we faced and are better prepared to move forward in the future."
AGAIN, AGAIN AND AGAIN
While the primary election was a major undertaking given the delays, new equipment, the virus and the flood of absentee ballots, the work wasn't over.
First there was a recount of the state court judge's race in Jackson County following the primary in June.
Then there was an August runoff for a handful of races.
Then came November and the controversial presidential race. The county had its highest turnout ever, over 37,000 ballots were cast in that election.
Then there was a state-mandated hand recount of all ballots.
Then there was a state-mandated machine recount of all ballots.
The November ballots were counted three times, but still some people, including the president, continued to claim the state's election had been rigged or stolen.
Logan said she did get calls from people who echoed what they were seeing in the media about the election, but that her office also got a lot of positive feedback.
"We do our best to explain our processes and be as transparent to the public as we can possibly be to ensure our voters that we are doing everything we can to conduct accurate and safe elections in our county," she said. "We have heard a great deal of wonderful feedback and support from our community."
Despite that, one of Logan's board members, a newly-appointed Republican member, voted against certifying the county's November election results despite there being no problems and no evidence of any kind of fraud. It was a stab in the back to the county's elections system by one of its own board members.
Even after all of that, the chaos for Logan in 2020 wasn't over.
A controversial runoff for the state's two Senate seats is slated for Jan. 5. Just before Christmas, Ron Johnson — the same Ron Johnson who had once been the controversial chairman of the elections board — brought a spurious challenged against over 2,000 registered voters in the county.
A deeply divided, partisan county elections board rejected his challenge 3-2, but the situation drained time and resources away from Logan preparing for the looming runoff.
And it also demonstrated just how deep the poison of the national political culture had infected our local politics.
It's clear that Logan has faced a very difficult year holding elections amid a pandemic, a national political hothouse and a local elections board that at times has been little more than partisan drama writ small.
And it's not been easy for Jennifer. Husband Joel said that the bickering and national disdain for our elections system has affected her.
But it's not stopped her.
"The main thing that keeps her going is serving the citizens of Jackson County and knowing that they are able to vote and take part in what is an important cornerstone of our great nation," Joel said.
He also pointed out that unlike some other counties, the elections in Jackson County this year have been done without major problems.
"I think you don’t have to look very far to see there is a night and day difference in how our elections run verses other counties," he said. "Though she is not the only person responsible for this — she has many great poll workers and employees that make it possible — I believe her endless work and dedication to her job has made our elections successful and stand out when compared with other counties. Please keep in mind I am married to her and love her very much so I am also very biased."
Joel may be biased, but it's clear that he's right about the tremendous dedication Jennifer has had for conducting fair, honest and accessible elections in Jackson County.
For her part, Jennifer credits her staff for the success of 2020 despite all the challenges.
"I have a wonderful extended work family whom I can depend on to show up at a moment's notice," she said. "Just a text or email is all it takes to fill my office with hardworking individuals, who work tirelessly on any task given. My work family extends from my wonderful office staff and helpers from other county offices, to my dedicated poll officials... a group like no other, with big willing hearts and warm smiles that make it all worthwhile."