Three weeks before voting begins in a presidential race — the busiest, most crucial election a county can handle — Fulton County’s elections office has become a department in flux.
The Board of Registration and Elections accepted the resignation of embattled department director Sam Westmoreland on Monday, replacing him with an interim director and repeating promises to bring in outside consultants to assist with polling.
That means staffers will be adjusting to new leadership and directives as early voting begins Oct. 15. Fulton County has a recent history of elections difficulties and is currently part of nine open investigations by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.
Georgia’s largest county, Fulton includes nearly 10 percent of the state population. Election problems in Fulton could affect the Obama-Romney race, casting the state and county in a negative light worldwide.
Elizabeth Poythress, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said the department’s status is a concern, but added the pre-election turnover is better than having a leader whose competency was in question.
“It’s better to have a plan in place, and that’s what they have done today,” Poythress said. “But I can tell you that our organization, and many other organizations that are concerned about this election, will be watching vigilantly.”
Fulton drew heat in the Obama-McCain election four years ago, when the office’s absentee ballot processing went so slow that the county had to hire FedEx to ship nearly 4,000 ballots to voters overnight, costing more than $300,000.
Then, after closing the polls, workers spent 53 hours in a warehouse counting absentee and provisional ballots. At the time, the results of a U.S. Senate race hung in the balance.
Several officials who have voiced doubts about the county’s ability to run the polls accurately expressed relief at Westmoreland’s departure. Under fire for bungling the redistricting process and putting hundreds of voters to the wrong state House and Senate races in the July primary, the director generated more embarrassment last week with a 10-day jail stint for violating probation terms from a 2009 DUI arrest.
“I think the county’s better off without him,” County Commissioner Tom Lowe said. “I’m just trusting the fact that we’ve got a board there that knows what had to be done, and they’ll get it together and do it right.”
Registration Chief Sharon Mitchell, who has been with the county for about a year and has a decade of elections experience, will serve as interim director.
Commission Chairman John Eaves said County Manager Zachary Williams will move extra staff into the elections office if needed. The elections board plans to meet weekly until November to scrutinize operations.
“It’ll be a more collaborative and coordinated effort,” Eaves said, “given some of the recent challenges that that office has had.”
At a special-called meeting Monday where Westmoreland was expected to be terminated, the 5-member elections board deliberated in closed session for about 45 minutes before voting unanimously to accept his resignation. He sent his resignation letter Saturday while in the Alpharetta jail.
He now awaits transfer to jail in Laurens County, in middle Georgia, for failing to show up for court after a 2008 DUI there.
In the 2009 DUI he was found to be under the influence of the sedative benzodiazepine, according to a GBI Crime Lab analysis obtained by the AJC. The 2008 incident stemmed from a collision with a tractor trailer with Westmoreland under the influence of unspecified drugs, according to a Georgia State Patrol report.
“After much reflection,” his resignation letter says, “I believe it is in the department’s best interest to have a leader that enjoys the full support of this board as we move forward toward this important general election.”
Board Chairman Roderick Edmond, speaking at a news conference after the meeting, said the board lost confidence in Westmoreland about three or four weeks ago. Under the terms of the vote, should he rescind his resignation, he will be immediately fired.
A member of the Board of Registration and Elections since 2004 and a two-time board chair, Westmoreland was appointed interim elections director in July 2011, and permanently took over the position in March.
Edmond said the board will hire outside consultants to assist, a plan described by Westmoreland in August as he was being blasted by county commissioners over the primary errors. Edmond could not say who will be hired or how much the consultants will cost, though he said it will come out of funds being saved through unfilled staff positions.
“Regardless of this unfortunate circumstance,” Secretary of State Brian Kemp said in a written statement, “Fulton County still has a legal obligation to provide safe and secure elections. Our office will work with them as closely as possible to make sure this takes place on Nov. 6.”
Staff writers Tim Eberly and Mike Morris contributed to this article.