Georgia shouldn’t take over Fulton elections, says state review panel

Performance review cites improvements over past two years
Fulton County elections workers process incoming ballots at the Fulton County Election Preparation Center after polls closed Dec. 6.  Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Fulton County elections workers process incoming ballots at the Fulton County Election Preparation Center after polls closed Dec. 6. Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A performance review of Fulton County election operations recommended against a state takeover Friday, finding that the county has made “significant improvement” since the 2020 election year.

“Replacing the board would not be helpful and would in fact hinder the ongoing improvements to Fulton County elections,” states the 19-page report by a three-person panel appointed by the State Election Board.

The review of election operations in Fulton, the most populous county in the state, arose from a provision in Georgia’s 2021 voting law that allowed troubled local election boards to be replaced following an investigation.

Elections in Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold that includes most of the city of Atlanta, have long been criticized by Republicans.

After a year and a half, the inquiry cited many changes in training, processes and procedures that corrected issues observed during elections in 2020.

“We did not see any indications of fraud, dishonesty, or intentional malfeasance in the 2020 election results in Fulton County, but we did see how a lack of careful planning and precision in ensuring that processes were strictly followed led to errors and to an overall environment that appeared unorganized,” the report states.

Observers watch as Fulton County election workers process incoming ballots at the Fulton County Election Preparation Center after polls closed Dec. 6.  Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Fulton Elections Board Chairwoman Cathy Woolard said the report was fair and provided recommendations for continued improvement.

“We’ve made a lot of progress and worked incredibly hard,” Woolard said. “We’re all interested in the same result. It feels pretty good today.”

During the 2020 primary, voters experienced long lines amid the COVID-19 pandemic because of precinct closures, staffing shortages, absentee ballots that were never received by voters and the rollout of a new voting system.

Then in the 2020 presidential election, the report cited process errors during an audit that recounted all paper ballots by hand, such as batches of ballots with 100% of votes for a candidate and incorrect data.

Election investigators have previously said that problems can be explained by human errors, such as election workers who divided ballots by each candidate.

Overall, the results were similar in the initial count, the manual audit and a machine recount. Democrat Joe Biden defeated Republican Donald Trump by about 12,000 votes across Georgia, and Biden received 73% of the vote in Fulton.

Trump frequently attacked Fulton County and asked Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to reverse his defeat, a request that is now the subject of a criminal investigation of election interference led by Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis.

“The findings validate what I and most of us here in Fulton County knew all along: that our elections were open, they were fair and they were transparent,” Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said. “There’s always room for improvement, and that’s how we’ve operated.”

The report also said that investigators substantiated an allegation that almost 200 ballots were counted twice during the first vote count of the presidential election.

In addition, Fulton initially failed to upload all memory cards that contained votes during municipal elections in 2021 and the May 2022 primary, an error that was reconciled before results were certified.

During future elections, Fulton should continue to improve poll worker training, create more organized work areas, keep better track of memory cards, remind voters to check their paper ballots and ensure that election workers are kept sequestered when ballots are counted early, the report states.

Fulton’s election office might have also finally found a permanent leader.

The county’s elections board voted unanimously Thursday to appoint interim Elections Director Nadine Williams to the role she has handled since last year’s primary. If approved by the County Commission, she will replace Richard Barron, who resigned from the job he had held since 2013.

A group of Republican legislators who represent parts of Fulton County initiated the performance review in July 2021, as allowed by the state elections law they helped pass along party lines four months earlier.

The performance review was conducted by Republican Rickey Kittle, chairman of the Catoosa County election board; Democrat Stephen Day, a member of the Gwinnett County election board; and Ryan Germany, general counsel for Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

The Carter Center contributed 64 independent, nonpartisan election observers to the performance review process, according to the report.

While the performance review incentivized Fulton to make changes, the oversight process itself should also be improved, the panel wrote.

“It took an enormous amount of donated work, and it is difficult to see how it is a sustainable process that can continue to positively influence election administration in Georgia without some reforms,” the report said.

Under Georgia’s voting law, the State Election Board can remove a county’s election board following a performance review, replacing it with a temporary administrator.

The State Election Board will review the performance review panel’s recommendations during a meeting Feb. 7 and decide whether to take further action.