Fulton elections chair quits before hearing

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Tracking a series of elections errors, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has scrutinized the Fulton County Registration and Elections Department for the past seven months. By poring over documents, analyzing voter spreadsheets and interviewing experts, county officials, poll workers and voters, the AJC has exposed flaws in the hiring of the department’s former chief and sought answers for the use of an inordinate number of provisional ballots during the presidential election.

Today’s article deals with the back-to-back resignations of two elections board members.

Fulton County’s top elections official stepped down Friday, three weeks before a state hearing on the county’s botched handling of last year’s presidential election.

Chairman Roderick Edmond is the second elections board member to resign since Christmas, as the department faces heavy scrutiny over the disastrous tenure of an unqualified elections director and a succession of polling problems last year.

Complaints going before the State Election Board this month involve allegations of mismanagement that had thousands of voters casting paper ballots unnecessarily in November, creating ballot shortages and long lines that could have persuaded many voters to give up and leave before they cast their ballots.

It was the latest in a string of fiascoes that have plagued the county during the past four years, including mishandling absentee ballots in 2008, being fined $120,000 for tossing voter records into a trash bin in 2009, placing hundreds of voters in the wrong state House and Senate races in last year’s primary and seeing former Elections Director Sam Westmoreland resign in September.

“The second recent resignation from the Fulton board of elections further underscores the lack of dependable leadership in the department,” Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who has been critical of the county’s chronic problems, said in a statement. “Our agency is working diligently to gather information for the Jan. 31st (hearing) so that the citizens of Fulton can enjoy the safety and security of elections that they deserve.”

Edmond, the County Commission’s appointed chairman of the board since 2009, will step aside once commissioners name his replacement, which Commission Chairman John Eaves said could happen as early as the commission’s next meeting Jan. 23.

Two weeks ago, attorney William Riley also quit, citing his busy schedule. He was one of two Republican Party appointees to the elections board, which also has two Democratic appointees.

The departures of two of the five members come amid the search for a permanent replacement for Westmoreland. The board is in the process of screening applicants.

Westmoreland resigned while jailed for failing to follow sentencing terms from two DUI convictions related to prescription drugs.

Edmond and Riley are quitting in the weeks leading up to what could be a high-profile scorching by state elections authorities. Kemp fast-tracked his office’s investigations into 111 voter complaints stemming from the November election and will have the cases before the State Election Board, which he heads as chairman, for the hearing somewhere at the state Capitol complex.

The state board will decide whether to dismiss claims, impose sanctions or send cases to the state Attorney General’s Office for prosecution and possible fines.

Edmond did not return phone messages or respond to an email Friday. His resignation letter to Eaves offered no explanation but referenced a consultant’s report that the elections office has yet to let anyone see.

“The department is moving in the right direction,” Edmond said in the letter. “Identifying a strong director and implementation of many of the plans identified by the consultant, Gary Smith, will significantly aid the department in carrying out its mission.”

Kemp’s office, County Commissioner Liz Hausmann and the AJC have requested Smith’s report, but the department has declined to release it, citing attorney-client privilege.

Hausmann said she considers the report public information.

“It greatly concerns me, because we’re scheduled to go before the State Election Board, and out leadership has resigned,” she said. “I think the citizens of the county deserve some answers.”

Elections board member Stan Matarazzo, a GOP appointee, said the report isn’t finished, but it recommends extensive improvements to operations.

“I don’t think there’s anything that points directly at (Edmond),” Matarazzo said. “Total speculation would be that (he) just felt a lot of pressure from all the negative press throughout 2012.”

Eaves said Edmond offered to resign without being asked. Eaves said he wanted to wait until after Tuesday’s special election to replace former state Sen. Chip Rogers, an election that went smoothly in the 12 polling sites in Fulton.

“I just think, and Rod feels, that it’s a good time for a transition of leadership,” Eaves said.

The trouble in the November election started, officials have said, when the department fell behind on entering voter registration data into a computer system. Six thousand people had still not been entered the Friday before the election, the last day to get them into the system.

While interim Elections Director Sharon Mitchell said those names were compiled over that weekend onto printed supplemental lists, the Secretary of State’s Office and some poll workers later alleged that those lists were still being delivered to polling sites hours after voting started.

Edmond stood by Mitchell in his public comments, often saying the news media were exaggerating the problems in November. At the same time, he said the department needed reforms. “It’s going to take some very, very, I’ll say, hard and definitive changes in a culture,” he said.