Fight over control of Fulton elections heads before state board Wednesday

By: - August 18, 2021 3:00 am

On Wednesday’s State Election Board agenda is a proposal to appoint an independent panel to evaluate Fulton County elections under a rule that empowers the state to takeover local election boards for rules violations. Fulton County, which used State Farm Arena in 2020 to reduce wait times and keep voters socially distanced, is the first target of the takeover process. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

The Georgia State Election Board is set Wednesday to appoint an independent review panel to examine Fulton County elections management as the fight over control of the state’s largest county continues to take center stage.

The creation of the review board is a step toward the potential removal of Fulton election board members. Georgia’s Republican leaders have been pressing for a performance evaluation of the board under the state’s controversial new voting law.

Wednesday’s State Election Board meeting would be the first time the board uses its newfound power under Senate Bill 202 to appoint a panel to investigate whether local boards have properly handled their election duties. 

The performance review board clause was triggered for Fulton after local GOP legislators from each chamber requested the evaluation in recent weeks.

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

Georgia Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller took the lead as four senators from Fulton County and two dozen other GOP colleagues fired off a letter to Fulton superintendent Rick Barron about the duplicate ballots. They also called for an evaluation of Fulton elections and Barron.

Fulton House Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones and Rep. Chuck Martin of Alpharetta also requested the review.

“Maintaining integrity in our elections is of the utmost importance to me and my colleagues in the State Senate,” Miller wrote on July 15. “Unfortunately, Fulton County’s apparent disregard for election procedures and state law have called that integrity into doubt. 

“At minimum, these revelations undermine Georgians’ confidence in our elections, and I will not allow them to remain unresolved and shrouded by a lack of information and transparency,” Miller added.

Democrats and progressive voting rights organizations call these new powers for the State Election Board the most dangerous part of the 98-page voting law.

They argue that this method of creating temporary election boards is a partisan power play that could sway election results by controlling how a county sets polling places, certifies election results, and performs other election duties.

Supporters argue the changes will hold local elections management more accountable.

Under the new rule, after the review panel files a report that includes recommendations, the State Election Board must hold a preliminary hearing within 90 days.

The state election members would then have the authority to hold another hearing before deciding if the local board should be temporarily suspended for not resolving at least three violations since 2018 or if more severe problems have occurred within two years. 

The state-appointed administrator could spend at least nine months managing local elections before local control is returned. 

Previously, Georgia law only allowed a judge to replace local election leadership.

Fulton lawmakers, county chairman join forces

Fulton’s Democratic legislators joined County Chairman Robb Pitts last week as they pledged to work together to fight Republican threats to Fulton’s election management.

They’ve called the proposed state takeover an overreaction to the embarrassment of Donald Trump losing to President Joe Biden and an outgrowth of the attempts to continue spreading unfounded claims that widespread fraud cost Trump the election.

Much less drastic measures than a takeover can resolve issues like the long lines seen during the June primaries in Fulton that were no longer a problem in the November election, said state Sen. Jen Jordan, chair of the Fulton Senate delegation. 

“(Republicans) think keeping political power is way more important than actually protecting the fundamental right to vote,” she said. “I can promise you that we have been pushing whenever there’s been an issue with Fulton County elections, we have worked with the county. We have worked with the elections board to actually try to fix it and try to remedy it.”

Pitts has said Fulton attorneys continue to explore their legal options. Fulton lawmakers said they are also paying close attention to a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit and other legal challenges attempting to overturn controversial elements of SB 202.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the state’s top election chief, has called Georgia’s 2020 general election the most secure in the state’s history, with results verified by several counts, including one done by hand. 

Still, Raffensperger has consistently called for a shakeup in Fulton’s election leadership, most recently pushing for the firing of Barron and voter registration chief Ralph Jones.

Barron has so far weathered the threats to his job and avoided a close call this year when the County Commission voted down a Fulton election board recommendation in February to fire him.

Jones, however, resigned on last week as pressure from last year’s elections continued to persist and with the early stages of the takeover process underway. 

Also, a recent internal audit of Fulton’s 2020 elections listed 10 problems, including a lack of financial oversight and formal operating procedures.

“I’ve been involved in quite a few elections throughout my career, and there has never been a perfect election and never will be one,” Pitts said. “We’re open for suggestions. We know that we’re not perfect, but we also know that there was not one iota of malfeasance back in 2020.”

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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. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.