Panel begins review of Fulton elections ahead of potential state takeover

By: - August 18, 2021 1:29 pm

The State Election Board appointed Wednesday an independent panel to review Fulton County elections at the request of Republican lawmakers who cited Fulton as a major reason they supported a provision giving the state power to take over problematic local election boards. In this photo, Fulton election workers sorted absentee ballots during a pilot audit after last June’s primary. Stephen Fowler/GPB

This story was updated Wednesday at 6:25 p.m. with reaction from the secretary of state, a review board member and a Fulton legislator.

The State Election Board assigned an independent panel Wednesday to review Fulton County’s voting operation under a new rule that could lead to a state takeover of local elections. 

The performance review board will begin evaluating elections in the state’s largest county – and a Democratic stronghold – at the request of Georgia Republican leaders who’ve been calling for a shakeup in leadership following the 2020 elections.

The state’s controversial and sweeping voting law, Senate Bill 202, requires state election board members to appoint an independent panel at the request of at least four legislators from the district where the review is would take place.

Eventually, the state board would determine if local election officials should be temporarily suspended and replaced by a state-appointed administrator to run elections.

Fulton’s elections have remained in the crosshairs of GOP state officials since the close of the 2020 presidential election. A pending lawsuit from a group of Fulton voters alleging widespread fraud in absentee voting uncovered 200 votes that were initially counted twice, intensifying the criticism from the right.

The review panelists selected Wednesday to investigate Fulton are Gwinnett County elections board member and Democrat Steven Day, Republican Rickey Kittle, who is the chairman of the Catoosa County elections board, and Ryan Germany, general counsel for GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Their investigation will cover all aspects of local elections, including election equipment maintenance and operation, managerial oversight, and compliance with state laws and regulations.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp praised the move Wednesday. 

“Fulton County has a long history of mismanagement, incompetence, and a lack of transparency when it comes to running elections – including during 2020,” Kemp said in a tweet. ”I fully support this review.”

Newly appointed Election Board Member Sara Tindall Ghazal, who is a Democrat, said she’s hopeful the new review board will work in the spirit of identifying how the Fulton election board and election staff can best serve its voters.

“I understand that the performance review board is going to be under tremendous political pressure on both sides to come to preordained conclusions. But knowing the members of this board, I trust that they’ll resist the pressure and approach their task with an open mind,” Ghazal said. 

“The narrative driving this pressure has been influenced by disinformation surrounding the November 2020 election, but the fact remains that Fulton County voters have reported numerous problems for far longer than November 2020,” Ghazal said.

State law requires the performance review board to report its findings and recommendations to the secretary of state, the State Election Board and the local governing authority.

The state board would then hold a preliminary hearing within 90 days of receiving the report, followed by another hearing before any action is taken. If local election officials are temporarily replaced, a state-appointed administrator could spend at least nine months managing local elections before returning it to local control. 

Election Board Member Matt Mashburn, who is Republican, emphasized the panel’s inclusion of an experienced state elections attorney and local election board members from both political parties who hail from both metro and rural parts of the state.

“Accusations that we’ve heard in the press that this is just a Republican hatchet job against Fulton County is not reflected by the slate of candidates,” Mashburn said. “I just wanted to also compliment these individuals for their willingness to serve. They know that this is a largely thankless task, except for the voters who are benefited on Election Day.”

Kittle said following the meeting that he’s honored to serve such an important position.

 “I look forward to working with my fellow Performance Review Panel members as we review the elections processes in Fulton County and make recommendations that we believe will ensure the integrity of Georgia elections,” he said in a statement.

Fair Fight Action, founded by Stacey Abrams, said the performance review panel must be a bipartisan representation of Fulton since its findings could spark the state’s first takeover of local elections by an unelected board without judicial oversight.

“It is not surprising that the Republican-controlled General Assembly has targeted Fulton County, Georgia’s largest county and home to the greatest number of voters of color in the state,” the voting rights organization statement said. “This takeover process may be just the first step in the General Assembly’s anti-democratic attempts to impose partisan control of elections in certain jurisdictions.”

Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts and Democratic lawmakers from Fulton also contend that what happens to Fulton could become a cautionary tale for the rest of Georgia’s 158 counties where elections operations could also succumb to undue political pressure.

State Rep. David Dreyer, chair of the Fulton House delegation, said Wednesday that the Fulton panel is the result of unfounded voting conspiracy theories and GOP officials trying to curry favor from Donald Trump and his supporters ahead of next year’s election.

“Fulton is one of the most diverse counties in Georgia,” Dreyer said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. “But this morning, we saw three white people appointed to conduct an investigation of Fulton County, with a pre-determined end to take over the Fulton elections board and allow partisans to run it for the upcoming 2022 elections.”

However, Republicans and other critics of Fulton point to reports from an internal audit and 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. 

The monitor also pointed out that there was no evidence of widespread fraud in Fulton.

After record voter turnout in the November election, Georgia and many other Republican-dominated state legislatures passed new voting laws, with Senate Bill 202 gaining notoriety as a national poster child. Raffensperger has called Georgia’s 2020 vote the most secure in the state’s history but has also pressed for new leadership over Fulton elections because of lingering problems over the years.

On Wednesday, Raffensperger said he’s glad to see a review panel established after he proposed last year giving the state more power over mismanaged elections offices. His request came after the June primary where many Fulton voters waited hours in line to vote.

SB 202 also removed the secretary of state as chair of the State Election Board, perhaps in response to the state’s top election chief refusing to overturn the presidential election results.

“I have been saying for a long time that the state needs the authority to step in when counties have consistently failed their voters,” Raffensperger said. “I’m pleased that the state finally has that authority and that the State Election Board has taken the first step today. I’m confident that the performance review team will do a good job, and I hope Fulton will cooperate with this process.”

 

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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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