Fulton chairman vows battle as state officials set stage for county elections takeover

By: - July 27, 2021 8:07 pm

Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts said Tuesday that the county is preparing to fight the expected attempts from Republican officials to takeover local elections. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts pledged Tuesday to fight efforts by Republican state officials who are threatening a state takeover of its election board.

The veteran local government official bristled this week as Fulton increasingly became the focal point of a provision in Georgia’s sweeping election law that allows state officials to remove a local election superintendent and election board they deem to be falling short of its duties.

The scrutiny into Fulton’s handling of the 2020 general election started soon after the Nov. 3 election and ramped up in July after a group suing the county election board for access to its absentee ballots revealed that nearly 200 votes were initially counted twice.

That sparked a letter from the Senate Republican Majority Caucus to Fulton Elections Director Rick Barron asking for answers about the processing and tallying of ballots during the audit. It also prompted calls from Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to fire Barron and his second-in-command.

Meanwhile, House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, is calling for an independent investigation into Fulton elections led by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

But Pitts said the 200 duplicate ballots don’t warrant the firestorm coming at Fulton from Republicans. The double count was simple human error and did not factor into the county’s final election results that were confirmed three times.

“I can’t let them get away with this in broad daylight without a fight,” Pitts said. “Because if they can do this to us here in Fulton County, the largest in the state with a target on our back, they can do it to any of the other 158 counties in our great state.

“And if political games are the reason they decide to take over, who knows what will happen once they’re in it,” said Pitts. “We could lose control over our elections to conspiracy theorists ahead of the (2022) midterms. This is an all hands on deck, five-alarm fire.”

The provision allows a local election superintendent and election board to be removed following a performance review process initiated by the State Election Board or by the county’s local legislative delegation. 

After record voter turnout in the 2020 general election, Georgia and many other Republican-dominated state legislatures passed new voting laws with Senate Bill 202 serving as a notorious national poster child. The state’s top election chief has called Georgia’s 2020 vote the most secure in the state’s history.

Republican lawmakers say the new rules will restore confidence following an election where then-President Donald Trump and many of his supporters launched unfounded allegations that the election was rigged against him, even before voting started. Conspiracy theories soon spread about Fulton poll workers mishandling absentee ballots at State Farm Arena to help President Joe Biden secure his narrow victory.

Raffensperger said he welcomes the support of Republican lawmakers as the State Election Board continues its investigation into Fulton. 

“I have called repeatedly for change in Fulton’s elections leadership, so I’m glad Republican legislators are joining me in this effort,” he said in a statement. “After Fulton’s failures last June, I required Fulton to accept a monitor during the general election and runoffs and forced the county into a consent agreement to start fixing their management problems. Fulton’s problems span decades, and the voters of Fulton County deserve better.”

State Election Board member Sara Tindall Ghazal said she is alarmed about the potential ramifications of giving election officials too much control over local elections. Before the passage of SB 202, Georgia’s law allowed a judge to replace the leadership, which lessened the chances of political influence on the decision, said Ghazal, sworn in as a Democratic appointee on Monday. 

“Election administration should never, ever be partisan,” Ghazal wrote in a tweet on Monday. “Public confidence in elections is promoted by clear, transparent, accountable processes. When the goal of an intervention is to affect an outcome, and not a process, that undermines our democracy.” 

Republicans and other critics of Fulton point to a report from an independent monitor appointed by the secretary of state’s office who criticized the county’s election operations as sloppy during last year’s general election. 

Following the historic Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs, the Fulton County election board voted 3-2 to fire Barron but were ultimately overruled by the County Commission.

Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said Tuesday the county failed to correct problems last year that have plagued its election for years, including long lines and wait times, precincts not opening on time, and late reporting of results.

“If Fulton elections continue to operate in the same manner as it has operated in the past, the results will be the same, and we will not achieve the basic goal of problem-free elections,” said Hausmann, a Fulton Republican who voted to fire Barron.

“The call for evidence by Chairman Pitts is most interesting,” she said. “Let’s put some sunshine on the evidence by examining the absentee ballots and envelopes, and prove to the public that all of the absentee by mail votes that were counted are legitimate votes backed up with proper voter eligibility documentation and chain of custody records.”

State Rep. Chuck Martin, an Alpharetta Republican, said he and House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones would welcome the chance to speak with Pitts and Barron. 

“If they’ve done their job, then they have nothing to be worried about,” Martin said. “If they haven’t, then they need to be held accountable. That’s not partisan, they need to be held accountable for Democrats and Republicans and Independents.”

Georgia’s SB202 has entangled the state in a legal battle with the U.S. Department of Justice and seven other federal lawsuits, many of which allege the state’s potential takeover of election boards, limits on the absentee drop boxes that grew popular in the pandemic and other restrictions are racially discriminatory.

On Monday, Fair Fight Action and Common Cause Georgia were among a group of civil and voting rights organizations that sent a letter to Raffensperger calling on him to “reject any partisan attempt to take over Fulton County elections through Senate Bill 202 or through any other means.”

Pitts, however, said there isn’t concrete evidence of significant problems with Fulton’s election that could be better solved by new leadership. 

“It’s a question of credible evidence,” Pitts said.” Bring me something, show me something, anything other than 200 votes that were caused by human error. There’s no perfect election, ever.”

 

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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