ATLANTA -- Shortly after U.S. Rep. John Lewis died, grieving Democrats were faced with two difficult choices: tap a replacement for the late civil rights icon on the ballot within days or slow the process and risk a legal challenge.
Democratic insiders decided to hold a swift vote, electing party Chairwoman Nikema Williams to fill Lewis' place on the ballot in the 5th Congressional District. The decision upset some fellow Democrats and brought backlash from Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who accused them of short-circuiting the process.
Records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show the root of the clash was confusion and disagreement over the obscure state law invoked after Lewis' July 17 death that guides how officials should replace a candidate who died after winning the party primary.
The law gives the party's executive committee until 4 p.m. the next business day to decide whether to submit a replacement name on the ballot, but it doesn't explicitly spell out that a substitute name is needed by that deadline.
In a text message the morning after Lewis' death, Raffensperger deputy Jordan Fuchs told Democratic officials they had some wiggle room.
The message, sent to party Executive Director Scott Hogan, said Democrats would have to inform the secretary of state's office whether they intend to appoint a replacement by 4:30 p.m. July 20 and then "they need to let us know who the replacement will be shortly thereafter."
A few hours later, Democratic Party attorney Sachin Varghese told Raffensperger's legal counsel, Ryan Germany, that his interpretation of the statute was different. He believed, he wrote, that the law required a replacement nominee by the deadline.
"I understand that you will try to identify any historical precedent on this and also consult with the Attorney General's office regarding the same," Varghese wrote. "I appreciate you doing so and look forward to receiving any additional information you may be able to offer on this point."
The records show no written response from Germany or any other deputies.
Facing a time crunch, Democrats arranged a virtual teleconference July 20 -- the Monday after Lewis' death -- to pick Williams to fill his spot on the ballot. Williams, a state senator, is seen as a shoo-in to win a full term to represent the heavily Democratic district.