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To end the 2017 race for mayor of Atlanta, put the 2009 race to bed

Jim Galloway
Atlanta mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms on election night. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

The 2017 race for mayor of Atlanta is over. And yet it continues.

The election boards of Fulton and DeKalb counties have declared Keisha Lance Bottoms to be mayor-elect, on a slim runoff margin of 832 votes out of more than 90,000 cast.

The defeated Mary Norwood is entitled to a recount, and is expected to ask for one. She has already begun seeking out instances of voter fraud or obstruction via Twitter.

One reason the mayoral election of 2017 isn’t finished may be the fact that we still haven’t laid the 2009 contest to rest.

Atlanta mayoral candidate Mary Norwood on election night. Curtis Compton,

In June, during an address to a Young Republican group in Buckhead, Norwood all but accused Kasim Reed, her opponent in that runoff, of stealing the race with maneuvers conducted before and after balloting closed.

“What we had heard happened in ’09, we did not prove – don’t record this, guys,” Norwood began. “This is my secret weapon, because I know this stuff, and people don’t know that I know this stuff. It’s never gone public.”

But a recording did go public, days before this year’s final vote on Dec. 5. Last Friday, in a formal letter, Reed’s private attorney demanded a retraction. Such actions are often a prelude to a civil suit.

Or a duel, depending on the century.

In short, using the inviolable rules set forth by Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator,” the only way to avert the disaster of an endless 2017 Atlanta mayoral election is to go back in time and make repairs to the tattered reputation of the 2009 vote.

Set your Wayback Machine for 2008. For that’s where this story really begins.

Troutman Sanders senior counsel Norman Underwood in a 2014 AJC file photo.

A young U.S. senator from Illinois was poised to become the first African-American president in U.S. history. Black voters in Atlanta and Fulton County turned out in droves, overwhelming election workers. Lines were interminable. On election night, returns dripped in like molasses in December.

Embarrassment extended to all quarters. Including the offices of Secretary of State Karen Handel, who had once headed up Fulton County government and was now in charge of elections throughout the state. Handel wanted the Fulton election machine fixed before the next big vote – the 2009 race for mayor of Atlanta.

She imposed a special auditor, a monitor, on Fulton County. And yet she knew the watchdog couldn’t be a fellow Republican. Handel chose Norman Underwood of the Troutman Sanders law firm, one of Atlanta’s true super-lawyers, to oversee the 2009 mayoral vote.

It is easier to name the Democratic campaigns and candidates Underwood hasn’t advised than the ones he has. Underwood once was a judge on the state Court of Appeals. He lost a 1982 race for governor.

Underwood started watching over the Fulton County elections process in the spring of 2009. He wrote his final report in February 2010.

In her secretive address to Young Republicans in June, Norwood said former residents of torn-down public housing complexes, shipped out to the ‘burbs, were brought back into the city for the 2009 vote.

Underwood’s final report states that, after the election, a group of poll-watchers alleged that it had indeed seen a list of voters with residential addresses that were now vacant lots.

“It appeared that the list in question was a list of registered voters which was not updated with current address information, which the group misunderstood to be a list of actual voters,” Underwood wrote. The complaint was withdrawn, after Handel’s office helped persuade the poll-watchers that their suspicions were unfounded.

That’s the contemporary, researched version of the facts.

“My conclusion was that we could find no evidence of [wrongdoing]. In order to make that case, there would had to have been so many people to contribute to that,” Underwood said on Monday, nearly eight years later. “In a polling place, for that to work, you’d have to have a lot of people in on that plan.”

He reminded me that the Republican-sponsored voter ID law was already in play — and in fact had contributed to slow processing of voters in the 2008 vote.

Moreover, Underwood pointed to Handel and her strong oversight. “This is not just a bunch of Democratic people who were running these elections, but the secretary of state’s office — they have inspectors, very focused inspectors,” he said. “There are checks and balances.”

There is a personal link — of a strange sort — between Norman Underwood and Mary Norwood. Underwood, 76, was introduced to politics in the 1960s by Gov. Carl Sanders. Who once dated Norwood’s mother.

“I like Mary Norwood. I think the city needs more Mary Norwoods. I wish we had more people that would put that amount of energy into politics that she has,” Underwood said.

In the aftermath of the 2009 election, Underwood said he spent a great deal of time with Norwood, discussing her concerns. “We could never understand, specifically and in a detailed way, what the allegation was,” he said. “I could never exactly understand with precision what the problem was.”

On Tuesday, I relayed Underwood’s comments to Norwood. Memory is a funny thing. She remembers Underwood’s attitude in a wholly different manner. Norwood said the attorney praised her willingness to be a good sport, to overlook flaws in the mayoral vote for the sake of civil peace.

Norwood quoted what she said were Underwood’s exact words to her eight years ago: “I commend you, young lady, for not tearing this town apart.”

As go-between, I was obliged to ring Underwood back.

“I think she is confusing that with someone else’s comment,” the attorney said carefully. “I don’t remember ever saying that.”

Underwood again praised Norwood for all she’s done for the city. But he also reached into his own biography for an explanation.

Losing an election into which you’ve invested a large chunk of your life amounts to a punch in the gut. You immediately begin searching far and wide for an explanation that doesn’t include a personal rejection by voters.

“When I ran for office and lost, I felt that the turnout was low — I felt this and that,” he had said in our first conversation. “You have all kinds of feelings, but feelings and facts are different.”

Underwood underlined his point the next day. President Donald Trump has already instilled enough suspicion into the electoral process, with his claim that millions of illegal votes were cast against him, the Atlanta attorney said. The president has even established a commission to prove himself right.

“When you have a feeling that elections are rigged, and it’s based on feelings rather than facts, it’s unfair to accuse governments of rigging the election,” Underwood said.

Such feelings, in fact, become a threat to democracy.

They are unfair, too, to the voters who supported the candidate who is ruled by those feelings. They risk becoming stuck in time, just like the candidate.