Fulton elections’ embattled director, new chair are looking forward

Fulton County elections workers work to count absentee ballots for Georgia’s Senate runoff elections at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Fulton County elections workers work to count absentee ballots for Georgia’s Senate runoff elections at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The last month has been chaotic for Richard Barron, and a blur for Alex Wan.

Barron, Fulton County elections director, was fired by the county’s elections board but later saved by Fulton County commissioners who would not go along with the termination. And Wan is now the chairman of that board following the resignation of Chairwoman Mary Carole Cooney due to a prolonged illness.

In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution following the board’s Thursday meeting, both men said they want to cut through the partisan rancor and get to work improving the county’s elections.

Thursday’s meeting was the first for Barron since the board voted to oust him Feb. 16, and the first for Wan since he was confirmed as chairman by Fulton commissioners last week.

When asked how he plans to work with a board that voted in a majority to sack him, Barron said: “I’m taking it meeting by meeting and doing my job every day.”

He added: “I will forge a relationship with Mr. Wan and we’ll work together to make sure the elections continue to run smoothly in the future, as the voters saw in August through January.”

ExploreFulton County elections board gets new chair, proposals for improvement

The threat to Barron’s job began a few weeks ago.

The elections board voted 3-2 to fire him on Feb. 16, with two Republican appointees and one Democratic appointee voting in favor of termination.

That came days after the board took a similar vote in closed-door executive session — an apparent violation of Georgia’s open meetings law.

On March 3, all of the Fulton County Commission’s Democrats voted to keep Barron and Republicans voted to uphold the elections board’s decision.

Barron over the years has brought needed stability to the role.

He has led Fulton’s elections since 2013 when Sam Westmoreland resigned while in jail. The poor track record goes back even further.

“I’ve lasted longer than the previous five combined,” Barron said.

Barron has been praised, even by those who voted to fire him, for expanding early voting. But his low point was the June primary — when some voters waited in line for hours, many because they never received mail-in ballots after Fulton’s system was overwhelmed.

“None of us were proud of it, but I think we recovered nicely and we served everyone well,” Barron said of the June election.

Wan agrees.

“I thought it was a disaster, and I was caught up in it,” said Wan, who was on the ballot seeking to fill the Georgia House District 57 seat.

As a resident of Fulton for 25 years and a former Atlanta City Council member, Wan said he has “seen it from all angles” when it comes to elections.

ExploreFulton leaders reject firing of elections director, appoint new elections chair

Wan said Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts reached out in early February or late January to ask if he’d be interested in the elections chair position. He said it wasn’t on his radar but he felt elections are too important for him to pass on the opportunity, and he thinks he can help.

Wan is a Democrat and, with elections misinformation at an all-time high, he said he has been asked how he plans to calm Republicans and others who are worried about vote integrity.

“The elections themselves should not be partisan in terms of the voting process,” he said. " ... I’ve always been deliberative and made independent decisions.”

When asked about the leadership of the elections department, Wan said: “I think there are a lot of politics swirling around this conversation that I’m not interested in getting involved in.”

“What we need to do in the mean time is bear down and focus on the work,” Wan said.

Barron, in consultation with county staff, has come up with recommendations about how to improve elections.

Fulton County election workers resumed counting ballots at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
Fulton County election workers resumed counting ballots at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

One change is simply having non-government polling places sign a contract so they can’t back out at the last-minute like many locations, including senior centers, did in mid-2020 over coronavirus fears.

The biggest ask is acquiring a 300,000-square-foot space by June 2022 to hold all elections operations and warehousing instead of counting ballots in six places, like last year.

Wan said he is process-oriented and wants to give Fulton the best elections possible.

“My approach to this is to be fair, impartial and accurate,” Wan said.

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