Fulton elections takeover would make history

Fulton County election ballot count on Wednesday morning, Jan. 6, 2021. (AJC file photo)

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Fulton County election ballot count on Wednesday morning, Jan. 6, 2021. (AJC file photo)

Experts say Georgia Republicans’ request to audit the elections of Democrat-heavy Fulton County is a historical first in the national story of partisanship invading elections management.

A letter first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday shows two dozen state senators calling for a performance review of Fulton elections chief Richard Barron using provisions from Senate Bill 202.

Republicans say they are trying to protect Fulton’s voters from the county’s decades of elections mismanagement. Democrats view this effort as a hostile takeover to alter elections results.

Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts wrote a letter to Fulton’s legislative delegation leaders Thursday asking them to hold a hearing “to ascertain the legitimacy of this request.”

“It is my ultimate fear that this request performance review could be occurring for political reasons and that Fulton County’s voters will be the ones who bear the cost,” Pitts wrote.

Gabe Sterling, COO with the Secretary of State’s office, pushed back on that accusation at an Atlanta Press Club event Thursday.

“The reality of it is not the state Legislature can come in and overturn results, and that’s what many people on the left side of the spectrum have said about the law,” Sterling said. “It’s simply not true.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Fulton has been “failing” at elections since 1993 and now Georgia has a method to ensure fair elections.

The next steps are unclear because this process has never been executed.

SB 202 is one of many pieces of legislation created after the 2020 election that allows legislators more control over elections management, said Jessica Marsden, counsel for Protect Democracy, a non-profit that works to protect elections from partisanship.

“We’re seeing the bill being used to potentially put control over elections into more partisan hands for the first time nationwide,” she said.

Protect Democracy is no stranger to Georgia. In 2018, the group filed a last-minute federal lawsuit to disqualify then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp from overseeing his own race for governor.

Marsden said researchers found that Florida, Kansas, Kentucky and Montana also have laws with effects similar to Georgia.

She said legislators nationwide usually create a law that directly addresses things they didn’t like in that last election. In Kansas, she said, the new law restricts the authority of officials instead of removing them like Georgia’s law.

Barron is the target of this latest attack. Raffensperger called for Barron to be fired the day after a segment admonishing him aired on Tucker Carlson Tonight. Barron said he’s concerned Georgia Republicans are taking orders from national TV personalities.

“I don’t think there’s another state in the union that has a State Election Board with the power to turn a non-partisan elections office into a partisan arm of the Secretary of State’s office. And that’s really what’s going on ahead of the primary,” Barron told the AJC on Thursday.

He added: “In our department, we’re all public servants, and no matter what we can’t move on from November 2020.”

Georgia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly passed SB 202 a couple months after the 2020 election cycle ended.

Sen. Jen Jordan, an Democratic attorney who specializes in complex civil litigation, said the law has many legal issues.

But that may not matter, she said. “As a general rule, courts are really hesitant to get involved in stuff like this … courts try as much as they can to stay away from political issues,” said Jordan, who heads Fulton’s Senate delegation.

And even if a judge decided to take up the case, Jordan said she wonders whether Republicans will be too far along in the process for any intervention to matter.

But, some say, the letter from the legislators includes a rudimentary misunderstanding that invalidates their effort to oust Barron.

Among its 98 pages, the bill allows the State Election Board could replace a county’s elections superintendent following a performance review/audit/investigation with a temporary superintendent to enjoy full reign counting votes and staffing.

The phrase “superintendent” has many definitions, but, for Fulton, that equates to the county’s board of registration and elections. So that means the law allows the senators to request replacing the board but not Barron, said Marilyn Marks, executive director for the Coalition for Good Governance, which is suing over the law.

“They are trying to circumvent their own law,” she said. “They are likely trying to circumvent addressing the performance of the entire board of elections, which includes two Republicans.”

When asked how a Senate roster full of attorneys could have made that mistake, Marks said: “To go public and make such a public showing of an inappropriate action, it is just irresponsible and should not be tolerated by the citizens. It’s not a slight misstep. There’s no doubt that they had plenty of eyes on that document.”

But that seemingly won’t stop the party, according to multiple statements from GOP legislators.

“It is high time that Fulton County Board of Elections be investigated for their years of elections malpractice,” BJ Van Gundy, the state party’s first vice chairman, wrote in an email. “Republicans are committed to making it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.

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