Fulton County elections chief stepping down following tumultuous term

Fulton County Election Director Richard Barron overlooks at the Fulton County Election Preparation Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Photo/Jenn Finch)

Credit: Jenn Finch

Credit: Jenn Finch

Fulton County Election Director Richard Barron overlooks at the Fulton County Election Preparation Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Photo/Jenn Finch)

Fulton County elections head Richard Barron, despite surviving an embarrassingly bad 2020 primary election and a subsequent failed firing attempt, is stepping down.

Commission Chairman Robb Pitts stepped out of a Wednesday commission meeting and joined elections board Chairwoman Cathy Woolard to announce Barron’s departure. His resignation letter says his last day on the job will be Dec. 31.

Pitts made it clear that — despite Republican attempts to oust the elections director — Barron was not pushed out. But he said Barron’s presence was “a distraction.”

“Politics interfered with him doing his job,” Pitts said. " ... But for politics, this man remains a giant.”

Barron told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday he does not have another job lined up but he feels now is the time to move on.

“It gives the [elections board] time during a very narrow window to find someone ahead of the May primary,” he said. “If I stayed too much longer, it’d be harder for them to bring someone new in.”

The laid-back Oregonian’s daughter and their hound mix named Biscuit used to zip around the elections warehouse as staff tallied votes. That was before his world changed in 2020 with the pandemic, conspiracy theories, death threats, media attention, and the stress that came with it all.

Former President Donald Trump called out Barron, saying he committed a “crime” while citing a debunked election conspiracy.

Barron was at risk of being fired after a disastrous June primary that had some voters waiting in line for hours, many because they never received mail-in ballots after Fulton’s system was overwhelmed. But Democratic commissioners seem to have been satisfied by his performance after smooth performances in the general and runoff elections afterward.

Fulton County Election Director Richard Barron speaks at the Fulton County Election Preparation Center in Atlanta, GA., on Tuesday, November 2, 2021. (Photo/Jenn Finch)

Credit: Jenn Finch

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Credit: Jenn Finch

Tuesday marked the first major election under the rules of Senate Bill 202, an elections law passed by Georgia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly a couple months after the 2020 election cycle ended.

Barron ran a smooth election Tuesday, which is good considering members of a state-appointed performance review panel closely watched election operations. That panel, under the new law, has the ability to let the state temporarily take over county elections. That investigation is ongoing.

The dynamic is disrupted

The elections director doesn’t report to the Fulton County Commission for a reason: Elections officials run the process that puts them in those seats.

The director is controlled by Fulton County Board of Registration & Elections, which is comprised of a chair appointed by Pitts and then four members — two appointed by the county Republican party and two appointed by the county Democratic party.

But that dynamic got disrupted when the elections board — at first with an invalid vote behind closed doors — voted 3-2 to fire Barron on Feb. 16 when one of the Democratic appointees, Vernetta Keith Nuriddin, joined the two Republican appointees to oust Barron.

The three thought county commissioners would approve their decision. But the majority-Democrat commission retained Barron on a party-line vote, with all Democrats on the commission wishing to keep him and Republicans wanting to remove him.

Barron’s greatest legacy may be how he expanded early voting throughout the county.

When Barron took the $125,000-a-year job in 2013, he said, there were between three to six early voting locations. For the 2020 presidential election, Fulton hosted more than 30 sites.

Barron took over Fulton elections at age 46 after former Fulton Democratic Party Chairman Sam Westmoreland resigned while in jail for failing to follow the terms of two DUI arrests involving prescription drugs.

Barron was elections administrator of Williamson County in central Texas, where he also came under fire.

Three months before Barron came to Fulton, the Texas county’s Republican Party tried to have him fired as elections chief, claiming he illegally ousted a poll overseer from a precinct and mishandled a small town’s school board contest. He was cleared of any wrongdoing.

All five members of the Fulton elections board told the AJC at the time they didn’t know Barron had botched school board election.

This is the Nov. 3, 2021 resignation letter of Fulton elections head Richard Barron. (Provided by Fulton County government)

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Credit: Contributed

Former Fulton County elections troubles

2008: A backlog in processing absentee ballots has Fulton workers in a warehouse counting ballots for 53 hours after the presidential election ends. Crews twice go home in exhaustion, in violation of state rules requiring them to finish the count first.

2009: Fulton is fined $120,000 – believed to be the highest fine ever levied at the time by the State Election Board – mostly for dumping more than 100,000 voter records, some containing private information, in a trash bin at Atlanta Technical College in 2007.

2011: Elections Director Barry Garner, viewed as making major improvements in the department, resigns. He had admitted to inappropriate conduct in a sexual harassment investigation, according to an internal county document.

July 2012: Tripped up by statewide redistricting, the department under Director Sam Westmoreland puts 690 voters in Sandy Springs and southeast Atlanta into the wrong state Senate and state House races in the primary.

November 2012: Fulton has more people using paper ballots than the entire rest of the state combined. Because of problems entering registration data into a computer system, poll workers can’t find many voters’ names on the rolls. The Secretary of State’s Office receives 111 complaints about Fulton, far more than any other county in the state. Some poll managers said the main office was still delivering lists of eligible voters hours after polls opened.

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