Former Fulton elections chief sues over firing

A fired former Fulton County elections chief is suing the county and its leaders, claiming in a lawsuit filed Monday that her dismissal was retaliation for refusing to participate in a cover-up.

Sharon Mitchell served as interim director over Fulton County elections in 2012 when confusion over voter registrations caused long wait times for voters. She was fired last year after an internal audit and a state investigation both determined the office failed to adequately update the voter rolls leading up to a high-turnout Election Day 2012.

That day, when the nation went to the polls and re-elected President Barack Obama, thousands of Fulton County voters were forced to cast paper, provisional ballots when they were eligible to cast a regular, electronic ballot. Some voters were told — incorrectly — that they couldn’t vote at all because of registration errors. Others simply gave up after spending hours in line. And left uncounted were more than 1,000 of those provisional ballots.

Mitchell, in her lawsuit, claims she brought the election office’s deficiencies to the attention of county leaders and instead of fixing them they chose to conceal them. She is claiming whistleblower status, a legal protection that shields public employees who expose wrongdoing from retaliation.

The lawsuit also claims the Fulton County Department of Elections and Registrations did not properly train workers and the county hired unqualified election consultants for partisan reasons, “wasting public resources” and not contributing to needed fixes.

Mitchell, through her attorney Marvin Devlin, declined comment. Fulton County also declined comment, citing its policy of not publicly discussing lawsuits and personnel matters.

The 2012 election prompted a state investigation into Fulton County Department of Elections and Registrations, the department that oversees elections. It concluded the department lacked leadership, organization and training.

Mitchell, a long-time employee, was elevated to interim director months before the 2012 election. The former Elections Director Sam Westmoreland resigned in September 2012 after his arrest following allegations that he had violated the conditions of his probation on a 2009 charge of driving under the influence.

Initially, the lawsuit notes, Fulton County stood behind Mitchell and defended the department’s performance following the 2012 election. That changed after the state investigation and Fulton County’s internal probe.

Mitchell’s lawsuit claims she was continually told her performance was satisfactory until June 2013, when Fulton hired Richard Barron as elections director. Less than a month later, the lawsuit says, Barron fired Mitchell.

Barron continues to serve as elections director. Fulton experienced no notable problems when voters returned to the polls this spring for the 2014 primaries.