New Fulton election chair appointed over objections to Fair Fight ties

Caption
Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard speaks to the media while attending the Mary Norwood election night party at the Park Tavern in the Atlanta mayoral runoff on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

The embattled Fulton County elections board added Cathy Woolard as its new chairwoman Wednesday, a move that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger condemned as a “blatantly political appointment.”

Woolard, who served as Atlanta City Council President and ran for mayor in 2017, is a former lobbyist for the voting rights organization Fair Fight Action. She was nominated to head the Fulton elections board by Commission Chairman Robb Pitts.

The commission voted 4-2 in favor of the Democrat heading the board.

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“She could walk on water and cure cancer and give sight back to the blind, but if we don’t take our time with this and do it right, we’re going to be in the news again and (risk) a state takeover,” Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman said.

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Commissioner Lee Morris said he asked Woolard about her Fair Fight work, and she told him she didn’t actually ever lobby for them.

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“All she really did was introduce some folks from here to there,” Morris said.

Woolard, a University of Georgia alumna, was a long-time advocate for LGBTQ+ rights before she became the first openly gay Atlanta City Council member in 1997. She was also the first woman to serve as council president.

Woolard will become the deciding vote on polarizing issues before the five-member elections board, which also includes two Democratic and two Republican appointees. Elections board chairs manage the direction of the board, help decide local polling places, create policies and oversee the election director’s responsibilities of running day-to-day operations.

Raffensperger said Woolard shouldn’t chair the board because she is “bought and paid for” as a former lobbyist for Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group formed by Democrat Stacey Abrams — a likely candidate for governor in next year’s elections.

“County election boards shouldn’t be overly politicized,” Raffensperger said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “We understand that Republicans will put their members on and Democrats will put their members on. But to needlessly seek confrontation by putting on Fair Fight, who has sued this state multiple times and cost taxpayers millions of dollars with her frivolous lawsuits, is an affront to the taxpayers of Georgia.”

Woolard was as an independent contractor for Fair Fight in 2020 and 2021 before her contract ended at the beginning of the week, according to a Fair Fight spokesman.

Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo tweeted that Raffensperger “thinks voting rights advocates aren’t qualified to be elections officials. He spoke against county takeovers, but now threatens to take one over that doesn’t obey his commands. His rantings are about appealing to MAGA conspiracy theorists, not Fulton voters.”

Fair Fight has sued the state over what they view as voting injustices.

Raffensperger threatened to seek the removal of Fulton’s entire election board because of Woolard’s appointment. But the secretary of state is no longer a member of the State Elections Board, which is the entity that has the power to conduct a takeover of county elections under Georgia’s new voting law.

Following the Republican Party’s loss of the presidency and the United States Senate, Georgia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly passed Senate Bill 202.

Among the bill’s 98 pages are provisions for the state to temporary appoint a superintendent with authority over vote counting, polling places and staffing to a local elections board.

Caption
Secretary Of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a press conference at the Georgia State Capitol on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Caption
Secretary Of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a press conference at the Georgia State Capitol on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That process is already underway in Fulton and the State Elections Board has formed its panel to investigate the county.

Election boards have become the focus of partisans across Georgia this year, with majority Republican commissions now able to take over appointments of several election boards.

Woolard takes the helm of Fulton elections in that tense atmosphere because former chair Alex Wan resigned in August after five months to run for Atlanta City Council. Wan was also a Democrat.

The 4-2 vote was mostly along party lines, except for Abdur-Rahman, a Democrat who voted against Woolard, and Morris a Republican who voted for the nomination. Republican Commissioner Bob Ellis stepped out for the vote.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. said they needed someone to fill the chair role because they are less than 50 days away from a countywide election, which includes hot races like the Atlanta mayoral contest.

In addition to Woolard’s lobbyist status for the voting rights group, Raffensperger also felt it noteworthy to include that she spent time advocating for Planned Parenthood of Georgia.

A group of five local activists — Helen Butler with Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda; Aunna Dennis with Common Cause Georgia; Rev. Shanan Jones with Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta; Richard Rose with the Atlanta NAACP; and Susannah Scott with League of Women Voters of Georgia — wrote a letter in support of Woolard.

“Any qualified candidate will have deep ties to the community, strong relationships with officeholders, and connections to voting rights advocates. Neither these ties nor affiliations with a political party preclude Georgians from ably serving as election officials,” they wrote.

Pitts said he is happy that Woolard is now in place, even with Raffensperger’s attempt to derail the nomination.

“I wish we had a Secretary of State who cared as much about Fulton County’s voters as he did about winning his upcoming primary, but unfortunately we do not,” Pitts said. “ ... We now have Ms. Woolard to fill the void where his leadership has failed.”

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