Fulton racing to ready elections office after shakeup

Fulton County, which shed its embattled elections director on Monday, is scurrying to ensure that its elections department is up to par by the time voting begins in the all-important U.S. presidential race.

One thing being fixed: When Fulton’s elections office adjusted district lines to account for reapportionment this year, it didn’t use electronic mapping, the new interim department director revealed Thursday.

Now the office is going back over the process using geographic information system technology (GIS), with help from the county’s computer experts in the Information Technology Department. The county is desperately trying to avoid another embarrassment in November like the one in July.

In the primary election, 690 voters in Sandy Springs and southeast Atlanta wound up on the wrong sides of boundary lines, putting them in the wrong state Senate and state House races.

“We believe that we’ve done a significant amount of cleanup on that process,” Interim Elections Director Sharon Mitchell told the Board of Registration and Elections in her first formal report to her bosses since taking over the job.

Board members also pledged that they would step up scrutiny of elections office operations, meeting weekly to keep tabs and moving extra staff to the office as needed, with an eye on the Oct. 15 start of early voting.

Mitchell and Elections Chief Dwight Brower offered a list of measures being taken to avoid errors, assuring the board and the public that Fulton is on track for a smooth presidential election. Voting machines are being tested for accuracy, precinct managers are being retrained and a second shift of workers will be brought in on election night to count absentee ballots, they said.

The fresh eyes are to help prevent a debacle like the one in 2008, when slow absentee ballot processing had workers in a warehouse counting for 53 hours. Crews twice went home because of exhaustion, in violation of state election rules.

Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts, who has been scrutinizing the department’s elections preparations, said the process appears to be working.

“I think the infrastructure is already in place,” Pitts said. “We just need a titular head, and this board seems to be taking this very seriously.”

News that redistricting work was done without GIS came as a surprise to elections board member William Riley. He said that raises even more questions about former Elections Director Sam Westmoreland.

On Monday, the board accepted Westmoreland’s resignation and appointed Mitchell, formerly the registration chief, as interim director.

At the time of his resignation, Westmoreland was serving a 10-day sentence in the Alpharetta jail for failing to comply with terms of probation related to a 2009 DUI arrest. A blood sample showed he was under the influence of seven different medications, including the sedative benzodiazepine, according to a GBI Crime Lab analysis.

He was later transferred to jail in Laurens County, in Middle Georgia, in connection with a 2008 DUI arrest. The incident stemmed from a collision with a tractor-trailer, and Westmoreland was found to be under the influence of benzodiazipine and an anxiety medication, court records show.

This past March he pleaded guilty and was ordered to sign up for drug court. But after he failed to do so, the county issued a warrant for his arrest.

County officials were unaware of his jailing until five days into his Alpharetta stint.

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