Fulton elections 2022: Embattled firm renewed, still no permanent leader

Fulton County election workers started counting and scanning ballots again on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2020 as the State and the Nation waited for the results. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)



Fulton County election workers started counting and scanning ballots again on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2020 as the State and the Nation waited for the results. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Fulton County officials solved one problem in their elections department last week, but still face a potentially bigger issue just four months before the start of a crucial 2022 election cycle.

County commissioners last week finally approved the oft-delayed contract with temporary staffing agency Happy Faces, which will provide 800 election workers — or 20% of the county’s paid election staff.

But it is still unclear who will lead the elections department into the 2022 midterms.

Under fire for his handling of the 2020 presidential election — and in particular a disastrous 2020 June primary — Fulton elections director Richard Barron announced his resignation at the end of 2021. Barron agreed to stay on until April 1 to help ensure a smooth transition to the next leader.

Fulton commissioners just agreed to accept Barron’s delayed resignation last week, and the county appears no closer to finding his replacement.

That leaves Fulton elections board chairwoman Cathy Woolard just four months before the first primary votes are cast to train staff and find a new operational leader for the department. And it all needs to be accomplished under the dual threats of a potential state takeover and a new COVID variant.

“I’m trying to help us pretty much change all the tires on the car, whether they need it or not, while we’re moving toward the destination,” said Woolard, a former Atlanta mayoral candidate and city council president who took over in September.

And people are watching.

The Happy Faces contract extension follows months of debate, hours of angry public comment and much partisan finger-pointing. The partisan frustration was on display during the commission meeting last week.

About 75 people, some with printer-paper signs and stickers displaying a crossed-out smiley face, came to the Jan. 19 meeting demanding commissioners not extend the contract, and for the county to get rid of Barron. They want Fulton to staff elections with local residents.

A few of the demonstrators said they had worked for Happy Faces to help run elections and claimed the company was inept.

Some made the disproven claim that workers hired by the firm swayed the election away from former President Donald Trump and toward President Joe Biden. Some said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams owns 16 percent of Happy Faces, which fact-checkers have proven to be false.

Some of the 75 demonstrators who attended the Wednesday, Jan. 19 meeting of the Fulton County Commission meeting brought these signs to of a crossed-out smiley face asking commissioners not to extend a staff contract with a temporary staffing agency named Happy Faces. (Ben Brasch/AJC)

Credit: Ben Brasch

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Credit: Ben Brasch

After listening to the public comment, Democratic Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. was done being quiet.

“I just wonder where were all these people in 2016 when Richard Barron and Happy Faces were used for the election of Donald Trump,” Arrington said. “It seems that the outcome is the reason that these people are here. They don’t like the (2020) outcome.”

Some took pictures of his nameplate and began searching online for Arrington. Others claimed that Arrington, who is Black, was a racist.

But county officials had already relented and agreed to not be so dependent on Happy Faces. Instead, they will bring in other temp firms, or use in-house staff.

County manager Dick Anderson said they could get 200 to 300 staff from a couple other agencies and then hire 50 to 100 people outright so not everyone is coming from Happy Faces. But he said they shouldn’t do so this year, explaining that a massive staffing change before the crucial election cycle is not a good idea.

“I struggled with what problem are we trying to solve,” Anderson said, adding that there was no fraud in the 2020 election.

Anderson added that it’s hard to find people in the community willing to work as temporary employees for just four or five months.

For years, Happy Faces has helped staff elections and about 10 other departments. But with all the recent noise, Republican Commissioner Liz Hausmann asked the county auditor to review the county’s involvement with the firm.

The auditor told commissioners Wednesday that, after reviewing the elections along with senior services and community development, he found nine issues from January to August. Among them were untimely invoice payments, billing rates that weren’t agreed upon and the inability to prove that contractors did work as paid.

Credit: WSBTV Videos

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