A multicity movement in Atlanta’s northern suburbs is trying to take over local elections from Fulton County, an effort led in part by one of Georgia’s phony presidential electors and the president of a Republican Party group.
While supporters say the plan would save money in upcoming municipal elections, skeptics fear it could result in fewer voting locations, paper ballots counted by hand and inexperienced management.
The cities of Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton and Roswell are planning for the possibility of running their own elections this fall. The city of Milton already voted to approve the change.
The idea sprung from a Milton committee that included city officials and two residents: Mark Amick, one of 16 Republicans who tried to award Georgia’s Electoral College votes to Donald Trump in 2020, and Lisa Cauley, the president of Fulton County Republican Women. Neither returned messages seeking comment.
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Kay Howell, president of the North Fulton NAACP, said potential cost savings from precinct closures and shortened early voting hours would make it harder for voters to participate in city elections that affect their taxes, police and parks.
“I’m disheartened with changing the voting process under the guise that it was improving the budget. To me, it really appears to be more about controlling the representation of north Fulton,” Howell said. “I’m all about saving money for the citizens, but I’m also about making sure that we have a say in what happens in our city.”
Many city leaders in the area have said they support the idea of controlling their own elections based on complaints that Fulton County was too expensive. Costs increased because of new voting machines, pay raises for poll workers, precinct rental fees and inflation, according to the county.
The county initially proposed a cost of $11.48 per registered voter after it undercharged cities in 2021, resulting in a $2.4 million shortfall to the county, but Fulton modified its offer in a resolution approved this month that works out to roughly $7 per voter.
Milton Councilman Rick Mohrig said the proposal is solely based on cost savings, not any questions about Fulton’s competence, voting machines or the 2020 presidential election. A performance review panel recently found Fulton had made significant improvements in its election operations.
“We’re trying to save money for all taxpayers, regardless of your political affiliation,” said Mohrig, a member of the Milton Election Feasibility Committee, along with Amick and Cauley. “We’re not entering this lightly. We want to make sure this is done right.”
The committee estimated that the city could save $114,000 to $117,000 in this year’s elections, though many details such as hiring an elections manager and deciding on polling places still remain. The committee based its estimate on two election day voting locations for city elections, down from eight in last year’s general election.
Credit: Milton Herald
Credit: Milton Herald
Mohrig said Amick’s involvement was nonpartisan, and he said Amick’s work on the committee never caused him any concerns.
Amick is under investigation by Fulton prosecutors for his participation as a Republican elector for Trump after Democrat Joe Biden won Georgia by nearly 12,000 votes.
Amick told a Republican-run state Senate subcommittee in December 2020 that he wasn’t allowed to observe a recount in Fulton County, and that a box of ballots in DeKalb County was initially miscounted. The results of two recounts, one by hand and one by machine, were similar to the initial vote count.
“Having election deniers in a position to influence local election laws and policies is a real risk,” said Joanna Lydgate, CEO of the States United Democracy Center, an advocacy organization for fair elections. “In some cases, these are people who took steps to undermine the will of the American voters in 2020. Spreading lies about our elections can undermine voter confidence, spark confusion and even contribute to violence.”
Two other fake electors won election in the fall: Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and state Sen. Shawn Still.
Cities in Georgia are allowed to run their own local elections, though counties are still responsible for managing all countywide and state elections.
Fulton election officials acknowledged in recent public meetings that cities could try to save money by using hand-marked paper ballots instead of voting machines, and by opening fewer polling places with less staff.
But cities would then have to start their own elections operation, which comes with costs and challenges. A regional election superintendent would oversee all the cities’ municipal elections, and cities would need to hire their own election managers.
Cities would have to figure out how to manage voter registrations, process absentee ballots, find polling locations, hire staff and count ballots, said Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state’s office.
“Elections in today’s environment are a large logistical lift. It can be a difficult thing to execute,” Sterling said. “It’s impossible to 100% mitigate all the risks. There’s lots of things you’ve got to get right.”
Alpharetta Mayor Jim Gilvin said that while many decisions remain to be made, other cities across the state have been able to run their own municipal elections with hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots.
“Asking me to trust Fulton County to do anything well is a stretch,” Gilvin said. “But my concerns are the costs, and I am confident that if we do our own elections, we’ll do a better job.”
Several other cities in Fulton County already manage their own local elections, including Fairburn, Mountain Park and Palmetto. But none of those cities has a population of more than 17,000, compared with the larger cities in the northern parts of the county, with between 41,000 and 93,000 residents each.
The city of South Fulton has also explored the potential costs of taking over municipal election services. Most counties in Georgia run their cities’ elections, but in Gwinnett County, cities operate their elections.
Johns Creek Councilwoman Erin Elwood doubts that cost savings would materialize once cities realize how much they have to pay elections staff, and she worries that voters, particularly minority voters, wouldn’t be well-served if the number of voting locations is reduced.
“If we are OK with cutting polling locations, reducing the level of service and switching from machines to paper ballots, it’s our job as council people to do that, but it’s not at all clear that is what the people want,” Elwood said. “You don’t mess with people’s voting rights without checking with them first.”
More than 40% of residents in the affluent city of Johns Creek are racial minorities, and there’s a risk that some could feel disenfranchised, Elwood and fellow Councilmember Larry DiBiase said.
“If a person feels disenfranchised, to me that is enough to say they are because we can’t control perception and feelings,” DiBiase said. “If we cannot provide the level of service that Fulton County provides or better, then why are we doing it?”
DiBiase said he is weighing the feasibility of the city managing its own election in November, or whether it would be better to wait until 2025.
Fulton has given the cities a March 31 deadline to reach an agreement with the county to run their elections; otherwise, the cities will be on their own.