Chatham County voters chose new local and national leaders in the 2020 General Election. 

County residents will have a new district attorney and county commission chair. The tallies also showed the county’s strong support for national Democrat candidates.

Shaleena Cook

The county briefly entered the national spotlight Thursday as one of the last areas of the state to finish tabulating votes some 48 hours after polls closed. Totals from Chatham, which saw strong voter turnout, narrowed the gap in the presidential race for Georgia.

On a more local level, meanwhile, the race for the local office that will most directly affect public safety and security became one of the biggest upsets in Coastal Georgia. Political novice Shalena Cook Jones defeated eight-year veteran District Attorney Meg Heap, as voters responded to Jones’ promises to change how crime is prosecuted. 

Jones told voters in a late-night Facebook Live address that she was ready ready to pursue justice as well as promote unity in Chatham County after a particularly contentious campaign between the two former colleagues that was marred by hard-edged partisan rhetoric.

“Every political race is adversarial but now is the time to build bridges not barriers. Now is the time to promote hope instead of hatred. Now is the time for us to elevate peace over politics,” Jones said. “I will do my very best to lead the citizens of this county with skillfulness of hand and integrity of heart.”

In the wake of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing outside Brunswick, Jones’ views on progressive prosecution found solid purchase, despite positive opinion among many voters that Heap was a dependable public servant. 

Many voters, however, found distasteful how as the campaign built steam it attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from national political funds that have no direct affiliation with the candidate. Protect Our Police GA, the political action committee which endorsed Heap, came under fire for blanketing predominantly white neighborhoods with fliers using images many perceived as racist and Anti-semitic.

With more than 7,000 votes separating them after Chatham County tabulated its last portion of absentee ballots, Heap published a statement Thursday night conceding the race. “I’m proud of staying true to being the voice for the victims,” she said.

Activists among Savannah’s majority Black community have long complained that Georgia’s high incarceration rate is indicative of a broken legal system, one that unfairly targets Blacks, perpetuates poverty, breaks up families and ultimately makes for a less safe society.

Jones was part of a wave of upsets in District Attorney races across Georgia. At least eight incumbents lost their seats, including those serving the state’s five largest cities.

In several Savannah precincts, race played a direct role in voters’ choices.

Ebin Tanksley, a 38-year-old frequent voter, cast his ballot on Election Day at the Salvation Army on Bee Road in Savannah. He expressed excitement for the candidates he supported. 

“I was going for Cook Jones for DA and [Rev. Raphael] Warnock for Senate,” he said.  “I played my part.” 

Chatham County voters confirmed their role as a blue corner of Georgia surrounded by reliably Republican rural counties. Presidential candidate Joe Biden carried the county with 78,128 votes, about 59%. President Donald Trump received nearly 53,170 votes, about 40%.

Chester Ellis

The county also helped solidify a runoff between Republican Sen. David Perdue, who had a majority of the votes statewide before Chatham finished tabulating, and Democrat challenger Jon Ossoff. 

Savannah native Warnock, meanwhile, garnered 41.59% of the vote in the second Senate race, while Sen. Kelly Loeffler received 23% and House Rep. Doug Collins had 14%.

Some Democrats down ballot seemed to capitalize on the national party candidates’ appeal. 

Chester Ellis defeated Republican Jason Buelterman for Chatham County Commission Chair. 

Rep. Ron Stephens

Incumbent Ron Stephens, however, prevailed over challenger Marcus Thompson in the race for State House District 164, which includes portions of Chatham, Liberty and Bryan counties. Stephens, who has been in office for 24 years, faced his first serious competition for the seat from the political newcomer. Thompson and his family moved to Georgia after his wife was transferred to Fort Stewart. 

Nearly two-thirds of Chatham County voters participated in the election, casting 134,010 votes.  About 400 outstanding ballots remained Thursday night, all provisional except for 36 military and cure ballots.

Registered voters in Chatham County grew by 29% compared to 2016. Although more people voted in 2020 than in 2016 – about 20,000 more – the percentage of voter turnout decreased by about 9%.

Laura Corley is an investigative reporter who has covered public safety and government and education in her home state of Georgia since 2014. At The (Macon) Telegraph, Laura used open records requests...