Sudden switch in elections board chair nomination

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

In a surprise switch-up, Fulton County commissioners on Wednesday chose Patrise Perkins-Hooker to chair of the Fulton County Board of Registration & Elections for the next two years.

Commission Chairman Robb Pitts had nominated former Republican county commissioner Lee Morris to chair the elections board — a move that would have flipped control from Democrats to Republicans.

But that proposal drew strong pushback from the public and some other commissioners.

A coalition of 11 civil rights and voting rights groups sent commissioners a letter Tuesday urging them to reject Morris, calling the elections board chair’s position critical for the 2024 election.

At the start of the commission meeting, Pitts dropped Morris’ nomination and substituted Perkins-Hooker.

Perkins-Hooker voted in Democratic primaries from 2016 to 2020, according to voter registration records. However, Georgia is an open primary state, so voters can participate in any party primary.

Perkins-Hooker is a former Fulton County attorney, former president of the State Bar of Georgia, and is currently the elections board’s attorney.

Answering a question from Commissioner Bob Ellis, County Attorney Y. Soo Jo said she didn’t think Perkins-Hooker’s transition from serving as the board’s lawyer to its chair would create any conflict of interest.

All elections board members’ terms expire June 30, but the the other four seats are filled by two nominees each from the Democratic and Republican parties.

Before public comments and the vote on Perkins-Hooker’s nomination, Pitts read an email he said came Wednesday morning from Morris.

Morris wrote that he has always tried to avoid “the hyper-partisanship that has been so destructive,” and thought he could bring that balance to the board of elections. But on reflection Morris ultimately agreed with his Democratic friends that a Democratic-leaning county like Fulton should have a Democratic majority on its elections board.

“Otherwise the optics, as they say, aren’t good,” he wrote.

Morris said it was clear his nomination had become a divisive issue, and so asked Pitts to withdraw his nomination as chair.

Dozens of people signed up to speak during the regular public comment period. They were generally supportive of Perkins-Hooker’s nomination, but many criticized the tumultuous, “secretive and rushed” process that led to it.

Morris had a few supporters too, making now-familiar complaints about county voter rolls and criticizing outgoing Chair Cathy Woolard.

The commission’s two Republican members praised Morris.

Commissioner Bob Ellis called some of the comments against him “shameful.”

“Regardless of where his party might be, Lee was focused on doing the right thing and upholding the law,” Ellis said.

Commissioner Bridget Thorne decried the quick substitution, saying she hadn’t had time to get to know Perkins-Hooker.

Democratic commissioners said Perkins-Hooker is well known from her long record of public service in many positions.

Commissioner Natalie Hall thanked fellow Commissioner Dana Barrett for publicizing the issue.

“She is the reason for the call to action to hear from constituents countywide,” Hall said.

-- Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this story.

Patrise Perkins-Hooker bio:

Perkins-Hooker has been the elections board’s attorney for a year and a half. She is the administrative partner at the law firm of Johnson & Freeman, and served as Fulton County attorney for five years. Before that she was vice president and general counsel for the Atlanta BeltLine for six years.

A lawyer since 1984, Perkins-Hooker has also owned her own law firm and been a partner in two others. She is a graduate of Georgia Tech and Emory University Law and Business Schools. Perkins-Hooker was elected the first Black president of the State Bar of Georgia in 2014.