Fulton to consider two appointments to troubled election board

Digging deep

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been scrutinizing the Fulton County Registration and Elections Department for the past seven months, ever since learning that the office planned to purge more than 1,000 voters from its rolls who it believed were registered at demolished public housing buildings. Reporters have pored over public documents, interviewed experts, county officials, poll workers and voters about an array of irregularities. The newspaper also obtained a copy of a consultant’s report that found poor decisions and staff turnover undermined procedures designed to ensure elections run smoothly.

Today’s article deals with efforts to replace two members of the Board of Registration and Elections who have resigned in recent weeks.

Fulton County may turn to two long-time Atlanta officials to help clean up the mess in its troubled elections department.

The County Commission on Wednesday will consider appointing former Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood and former Deputy City Attorney Mary Carole Cooney to the Registrations and Elections Board. They would replace two election board members who resigned in recent weeks as problems with recent elections sparked a public outcry and an investigation by the Secretary of State’s Office.

The local Republican Party nominated Norwood, who narrowly lost a bid for mayor to Kasim Reed in 2009. She also tried to run against Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves in 2010 but failed to deliver the signatures needed for her candidacy before a deadline imposed by the elections board she now may join.

In an interview, Norwood wouldn’t rule out another shot at either job. But she said her duties on the elections board would not conflict with any political ambitions. Her term on the elections board would expire June 30 unless she is reappointed.

“I am looking forward to doing a lot of work getting the election process in tip-top shape so that whoever runs for office in 2013 or 2014 has an election process that works seamlessly,” she said.

County Commissioner Robb Pitts, an Atlanta Democrat and former city councilman, nominated Cooney to chair the elections board. She spent 22 years as an attorney with the City of Atlanta. For the last 14 years she has been in private practice and since 2005 has served as secretary of the League of Women Voters of Atlanta-Fulton County.

It’s unclear whether Pitt’s commission colleagues will support her nomination. The five-member board oversees the county’s voter registrations and election efforts. Four members are nominated by political parties, with the chairman’s position appointed by the Board of Commissioners.Though commissioners usually accept nominations to the board submitted by political parties, they choose board chairs themselves.

The proposed appointments come as the elections department has received plenty of attention for all the wrong reasons.

The department has weathered a series of problems, most recently in November. Because of problems entering registration data into a computer system, poll workers couldn’t find many voters’ names on registration rolls.

The Secretary of State’s Office received 111 complaints about the county in the wake of the election, including poll workers wrongly steering some voters to provisional ballots and denying those ballots to others. The State Election Board will hear the cases Jan. 31.

A consultant’s report laid much of the blame on former Elections Director Sam Westmoreland.

The report found he made bad decisions - including eliminating two key administrative positions that left the department unprepared for a major election, which included the presidential contest and other high-profile races.

The report also found staff turnover had eroded the department’s institutional memory over time and the department had no good method of passing along best practices following numerous leadership changes.

Westmoreland resigned last fall while jailed for failing to follow sentencing terms from two DUI arrests related to prescription drugs. Election Board Chairman Roderick Edmond and board member William Riley also resigned recently. Edmond did not give a reason, while Riley cited his busy schedule.

Norwood vowed to spend her energy understanding how the election department’s problems developed and what procedures are needed to correct them.

“You can’t have those lapses in something that is as fundamental to our country and to democracy as an election,” she said.

Norwood spent eight years on the Atlanta City Council. She lost the mayoral election to Reed in 2009 by less than a thousand votes.

Though appointed by the Republican Party, Norwood is an independent. She said that should help her as she tries to restore trust in the election system with people throughout the county.

Cooney said she’s read the consultant’s report and wants to “see if there’s a consensus that the report is valid and accurate.”

If confirmed by the County Commission, she said she would do “anything I can do to make sure people don’t have to wait a long time in line, that people who have registered to vote can vote.” That includes ensuring the department’s next director is held accountable but also has the resources needed to do the job, she said.

In a letter nominating Cooney, Pitts said she has “stellar credentials and experience,” plus the temperament and disposition to lead the elections board.