Georgia bill could shift power over elections to GOP appointees

Voters cast their ballots at State Farm Arena in December to determine which political party controls the U.S. Senate. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
Voters cast their ballots at State Farm Arena in December to determine which political party controls the U.S. Senate. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Decisions about Georgia elections, such as vote counting and polling place closures, could be made by appointees of Republican state officials empowered to take over local election operations, according to a bill awaiting final votes.

Under the proposal, the Republican-controlled State Election Board would be able to replace struggling county election boards and install new management, with broad authority over elections and results.

State takeovers of local election offices could change the outcome of future elections, especially if they’re as hotly contested as last year’s presidential race between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump. County election boards decide on challenges to voters’ eligibility, polling place closures and certification of results.

Efforts to change election oversight in Georgia come after Trump made unsubstantiated claims that the election was stolen. Recounts, both by hand and machine, confirmed Biden won by about 12,000 votes in Georgia. State election officials have said there’s no evidence of widespread fraud.

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The county at the top of the list for potential state intervention is Fulton County, the heavily Democratic population center of metro Atlanta that Republicans blame for their statewide losses.

Critics of the proposal say it would usurp authority from county election boards, often run by volunteers appointed by each political party or county commissions. The bill calls for one person appointed by the state to oversee a county’s election operations.

“That is an un-American, undemocratic, authoritarian process that our country cannot live with,” said Marilyn Marks, executive director for the Coalition for Good Governance, an election transparency organization. “The government could basically say: ‘Move aside, public process. Move aside, bipartisan efforts. We’re taking it.’ ”

Supporters of the measure say some county election offices, such as Fulton’s, need help after 2020 elections stained by long lines in the primary and suspicions about ballot security. They say the state government should step in when local governments fail.

“If you have a chronically underperforming county, where people aren’t having their right to vote adjudicated as well as it could, this will at least provide some potential relief to fix that situation,” said state Rep. Barry Fleming, a Republican from Harlem and chairman of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity.

Explore AJC Bill Tracker: Live updating bills to watch in the Georgia Legislature

The county election board takeover proposals are included within broad election overhaul measures, Senate Bill 202 and House Bill 531, which are scheduled for votes in each chamber starting Thursday. The legislation would also require voter ID for absentee ballots, expand weekend voting in general elections and limit ballot drop boxes.

Both bills would allow the State Election Board to seek the removal of county election boards for poor performance. The measure that cleared the House goes further. It would remove the secretary of state as the chairperson of the State Election Board and replace him with an appointee of the General Assembly. That would give a majority of the board to the General Assembly, which already appoints two of its members.

Alex Wan, the new chairman of the Fulton election board, said the county has made significant changes since the “catastrophe” of the the primary, when coronavirus-related precinct closures and undelivered absentee ballots resulted in some voters waiting in line for three hours or more.

The presidential election went smoothly for most voters after the county opened nearly 100 additional voting locations. Wan said the county is also increasing absentee ballot security and centralizing operations in one location.

“This concentration of control and influence of elections in the state Legislature is really alarming,” Wan said. “We still have a way to go, but we’re making improvements. To have the threat of the state coming in and changing course in the middle of that improvement is a disservice to Fulton County voters.”

Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, a Republican from Gainesville, said state interventions would assist local election offices, not undermine them.

“This would help those counties who are habitually offending, delinquent or problematic,” Miller said. “Let’s equip people to do their jobs and support them in the role of their job.”

Miller said the bill wouldn’t be used to reverse election results certified by county election boards. County election boards could only be replaced after a hearing before the State Election Board.

But in counties with open election investigations, skeptics say, it’s possible that hearings would have already occurred before an election, and then county officials could be quickly ousted before vote counts are certified.

“They can wholesale replace those election administrators and put folks from the other side of the state in charge,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of the voting rights group Fair Fight. “All in the name of being able to delay certification of elections, continue the lie of voter fraud and consolidating power. It will make what we lived through in 2020 child’s play.”

Election board takeover proposals

Senate Bill 202: The secretary of state would be removed as the chairperson of the State Election Board, which would be empowered to conduct investigations and hearings into counties with allegations of election problems. Then up to four county election boards at a time could be replaced by a single person with authority to run the county’s elections for at least nine months.

House Bill 531: The State Election Board could recommend the removal of a county election board based on incompetence or inability to perform its duties. Then the county’s legislative delegation by majority vote could remove the election board and replace it with a person of its choosing. Replacement election superintendents would serve until the following Jan. 1 or conclusion of any runoffs.