Capitol Recap: Georgia moves closer to takeover of Fulton elections

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

GOP senators seek review, first step toward wresting control from county

Georgia Republicans have made the first move in what could lead to a state takeover of Fulton County’s elections.

A letter The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained shows two dozen state senators are seeking a performance review of the county’s elections chief, Richard Barron.

Under the state’s new election law, Senate Bill 202, the State Election Board could replace a county’s election board after a performance review, audit or investigation.

The Republican-led General Assembly gave the State Election Board the power to fire local elections management after the GOP suffered losses in the presidential and U.S. Senate races. The push for SB 202 was fueled by the false claims of voter fraud that then-President Donald Trump and his supporters made while trying to overturn his defeat by Democrat Joe Biden.

Launching a performance review under SB 202 requires requests by two state representatives and two state senators.

The senators’ letter shows enough support for the performance review in that chamber, and two Republican state representatives from the county — House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones of Milton and state Rep. Chuck Martin of Alpharetta — told the AJC that they would join the effort.

Jones cited “repeated and systemic elections process failures” in supporting Barron’s review.

Fulton has had its election problems, including a history of long lines, slow results and administrative errors.

The county initially scanned nearly 200 ballots twice before a recount added 121 votes for Trump. Lines stretched over three hours at a Midtown precinct in last year’s primary after several precincts were consolidated into one. Some voters never received the absentee ballots they requested.

Carter Jones, a monitor appointed by the State Election Board to ensure Fulton complied with a consent order following the chaotic 2020 primary, said he saw no evidence of dishonesty or fraud during the November election. He did find the county guilty of sloppy management, offering examples of disorganization and poor accounting of ballots.

Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said a takeover would be in reality a GOP attempt to gain control of the U.S. Senate and retain the governorship in 2022 and strengthen Republicans’ prospects in 2024.

“It’s been rhetoric until this point,” Pitts said. “This letter is the first official step in the process.”

Pitts said he intends to form a plan with his staff, including the county attorney, Thursday.

“We’ve got allies in the Legislature, we’ve got the courts and the court of public opinion,” he said. " ... The law, as it currently stands, it on their side.”

While the steps have been taken to start a performance review, any takeover of Fulton’s elections would be up to the State Election Board, where three Republicans outnumber a lone Democrat.

If that were to happen, a temporary superintendent would have full authority over vote counting, polling places and staffing for up to nine months before the county government could remove him or her.

“What happens if this one single election superintendent refuses to certify any of Fulton’s votes in future elections?” Maggie Goldman, a Johns Creek real estate agent running for the County Commission, asked at a recent commission meeting. “That would truly be disenfranchising voters. And don’t think it can’t happen.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Georgia seeks dismissal of federal case against voting law

Georgia has filed a motion seeking dismissal of a federal lawsuit against the state’s new voting law, calling the case “political posturing rather than a serious legal challenge.”

The motion by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr says the Department of Justice’s suit lacks “any factual allegations demonstrating that the General Assembly acted with a discriminatory purpose when it passed” the voting law, Senate Bill 202.

The Justice Department’s suit is the Biden administration’s first major voting rights case. It alleges that Georgia legislators targeted Black voters, especially by limiting absentee voting, which they used at a higher rate than white voters in the 2020 election.

SB 202 places limits on when and where ballot drop boxes can be used, imposes stricter ID requirements, shortens absentee ballot request deadlines, prohibits handing out food and water to voters in line, and gives the Republican-controlled Legislature the power to seek the replacement of county election boards.

Carr’s filing argued that the federal government didn’t take aim at several Democratic states with less voting access, including Delaware, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

It also cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in an Arizona case that upheld that state’s voting laws despite a challenge alleging they had a disproportionate impact on minority voters. The court decided that “usual burdens of voting” and “mere inconvenience” don’t violate laws barring discrimination.

In all, eight lawsuits are pending against SB 202.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

More election legislation on the way

State House Speaker David Ralston sees the need for at least one more change to Georgia’s election system following the overhaul that the General Assembly approved earlier this year.

Ralston wants the GBI to take the lead in investigations into allegations of election fraud.

Under the current system, the secretary of state’s office receives complaints and investigates them. Cases are then brought before the State Election Board, which can refer them to the attorney general’s office for further investigation.

In 2020 — following false claims of irregularities made by then-President Donald Trump and his supporters who sought to overturn his loss in Georgia — Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger brought in the GBI to help the nearly two dozen investigators on his staff pursue allegations of voting fraud. No evidence has ever proved widespread fraud in Georgia’s 2020 elections.

Ralston says the GBI is best suited for handling such cases, calling it “the most professional, thorough investigative agency we have in the state.”

“The GBI shouldn’t have to wait on an engraved invitation from the county government or the secretary of state’s office before they can come in and investigate,” he said.

The speaker, a Republican from Blue Ridge, has also promised new funding for the GBI to initiate investigations in allegations of election fraud.

Having the GBI take the lead in such investigations would be another slap at Raffensperger. During this year’s legislative session, Republicans demoted Raffensperger from chair of the State Election Board and added new restrictions to his role.

Raffensperger is also likely to push election legislation in 2022.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Georgia sets sights on electric vehicle plant

Electricity powers only about 3% of vehicles worldwide, but Bloomberg reports that’s expected to grow to 60% by 2030.

Georgia wants a piece of that action.

That’s why the state is preparing to launch one of its biggest economic development pushes in the past decade to land a new electric-vehicle factory.

Georgia will be pitching woo to Rivian, an electric truck, van and SUV startup aiming to build a second factory in the U.S.

The company has plenty of money to throw around: It’s raised $10.5 billion from private investors since 2019. Investors have included Amazon, Ford Motor and Cox Automotive, a unit of Cox Enterprises, which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Rivian has contacted multiple states and is seeking at least 2,000 acres for the new facility, Reuters reports. A decision could come in the next two months, and construction could begin next year.

Georgia could try to interest Rivian in a 2,284-acre site in Bryan County, near Savannah. But locations closer to metro Atlanta could also be dangled for the factory, said people familiar with the recruitment effort.

Auto factories are economic development prizes because they create thousands of jobs at the main factory and at nearby suppliers.

Georgia has had good luck and bad in pursuing auto plants. In 2006, with the help of more than $400 million in state and local tax breaks, the state persuaded Kia to put a plant in West Point. But in 2015, Georgia lost out to South Carolina when Volvo chose the Palmetto State for a new factory.

The state has now set its sights on the electric vehicle industry and scored some successes.

South Korea’s SK Innovation is building a $2.6 billion plant in Jackson County to make EV batteries for Volkswagen and Ford. Georgia is also a finalist for a second EV battery plant to be operated by a joint venture between SK and Ford, an SK executive said in May.

Georgia recently lured Heliox, a Dutch company that makes EV charging equipment, and the Turkish firm Teklas, which manufactures EV parts.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Pak cleared to testify to panels investigating election interference

The U.S. Justice Department has given former Atlanta-based U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak permission to speak to congressional committees investigating his abrupt resignation and whether it had anything to do with attempts by President Donald Trump to interfere in the 2020 election.

Pak had already said he would be willing to speak to the House Oversight Committee if he had clearance to do so after the panel released a number of emails in June detailing his final days as a top federal prosecutor.

In a letter Monday, Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley Weinsheimer said Pak was also free to speak to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Democrats on the Oversight Committee said the emails indicated that Trump attempted to use federal resources and personnel to overturn the outcome of the presidential election.

The emails showed Trump allies in the White House and Justice Department reaching out to Pak at the same time Trump was saying Fulton County had not properly enforced signature-matching laws for absentee ballots. After three days, Pak abruptly submitted his resignation weeks ahead of his scheduled departure date.

The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that White House officials pressured Pak to resign because they did not feel he was pursuing voter fraud allegations aggressively enough.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Kemp designates $2 million for fighting Atlanta crime

Gov. Brian Kemp is shifting $2 million in emergency money to a newly formed unit aimed at fighting crime in Atlanta.

The money came from the governor’s $11 million emergency fund, which is typically used to help with unexpected expenses, such as storm cleanup.

The state Department of Public Safety created the unit in April with the help of $5 million that came from Kemp’s emergency fund during the past fiscal year, which ended June 30. The purpose of the unit is to target crime and street racing in metro Atlanta.

Kemp said the DPS requested the additional $2 million to hire more personnel.

Violent crime has surged over the past two years in Atlanta and other major U.S. cities. In 2020, authorities investigated 157 homicide cases in Atlanta — the most in more than two decades. This year, as of June, homicides had increased in the city by more than 50% and shootings were up by 40% over the same period in 2020.

Republicans have seized on the city’s crime woes as a key part of their strategy ahead of the 2022 elections.

In addition to this past week’s shift in emergency funds, the governor recently called on the Legislature to address crime during a special legislative session already planned for this fall.

Earlier this month, House Speaker David Ralston said he would seek $75 million more in criminal justice funding next year, and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan proposed creation of a $250 million tax credit for Georgians who donate directly to local police departments or sheriff’s offices.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has offered her own proposals. She recently announced plans to create an office of violence reduction and invest $70 million to develop and implement strategies to address crime. In March, the mayor said she wants the city to hire 250 more police officers, expand the city’s camera network and license plate reader systems, and add 10,000 more streetlights in the city by the end of this year.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Greene sues Pelosi over mask mandate

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Rome is one of three Republican lawmakers suing U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over fines they received for violating a mask mandate.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Greene, Kentucky U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie and South Carolina U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman.

The House Ethics Committee has already rejected their appeals over the $500 fines they received after refusing to wear masks on the House floor as mandated by Pelosi as a precaution during the coronavirus pandemic.

During a press conference, Greene described mandate as “segregation” and “discrimination” against people who both refused to wear the face coverings and declined to be vaccinated, according to reporter Eva McKend.

The lawsuit alleges that the mask fines imposed by Pelosi and enforced by the sergeant-at-arms and chief administrative officer violated the 27th Amendment, which says members of the House must vote to raise or decrease their salaries. Because the fines were imposed by docking the lawmakers’ pay, that amounts to an illegal reduction in their salaries, they argue.

The lawmakers’ attorneys also said the fine was unconstitutional because the decision not to comply with the mask policy is not the kind of “disorderly behavior” for which House members can be punished.

Republican U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde of Athens is making similar arguments in his lawsuit over fines he faced after refusing to pass through metal detectors before entering the House floor, a procedure Pelosi put in place after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.