Georgia board launches inquiry of Fulton election problems

The State Election Board appointed a bipartisan panel to investigate Fulton County’s elections management Wednesday, a performance review that could lead to a state takeover of the heavily Democratic county. [Photo/Austin Steele for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

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The State Election Board appointed a bipartisan panel to investigate Fulton County’s elections management Wednesday, a performance review that could lead to a state takeover of the heavily Democratic county. [Photo/Austin Steele for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Probe is a step toward potential takeover of Fulton elections

The State Election Board appointed a bipartisan panel Wednesday to investigate Fulton County’s elections management, a performance review sought by Republicans that could lead to a state takeover of the heavily Democratic county.

Fulton is the first county to undergo a performance review created by Georgia’s new voting law, passed by the state’s GOP majority in the Legislature after Democrat Joe Biden defeated Republican Donald Trump.

Fulton has a history of election problems, with long lines, slow results and administrative errors, but a state monitor last fall found no evidence of dishonesty or fraud.

After the review is completed, the State Election Board will have the power to replace Fulton’s election board with a temporary superintendent who would have authority over vote counting, polling places and staffing.

State Election Board members said they hope the performance review will compel Fulton to fix problems with absentee ballot processing and vote-counting procedures. The board voted unanimously to approve the appointees to the panel.

“I encourage folks to keep trying to improve and not just throw up their hands,” said Matt Mashburn, a Republican appointee to the state board.

A performance review of local elections is required under Georgia’s voting law after at least two senators and two representatives from the county request it, as several Republicans did last month.

Sara Tindall Ghazal, a Democratic appointee, said the performance review panel should resist “tremendous political pressure on both sides to come to preordained conclusions.”

“The narrative driving this pressure has been influenced by disinformation surrounding the November 2020 election,” Ghazal said. “But the fact remains that Fulton County voters have reported numerous problems for far longer than November 2020, particularly surrounding registration and absentee ballots.”

During the presidential election, the county initially scanned nearly 200 ballots twice before a recount added 121 votes for Trump. Lines stretched for hours in last year’s primary. Some voters never received the absentee ballots they requested.

Fulton has already made many changes to its elections, including adding nearly 100 polling places before the presidential election, auditing its fiscal management and addressing operational issues identified by an outside monitor appointed last year by the State Election Board.

The performance review panel’s members are Republican Rickey Kittle, chairman of the Catoosa County elections board; Democrat Stephen Day, a member of the Gwinnett County elections board; and Ryan Germany, general counsel for Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said the effort to scrutinize Fulton is driven by the “big lie” that the election results were fraudulent.

Three vote counts, both by machine and by hand, showed that Biden defeated Trump by about 12,000 votes in Georgia.

“This is the result of a cynical ploy to undermine faith in our elections process and democracy itself — it is shameful partisan politics at its worst,” Pitts said.

Efforts to investigate Fulton’s elections oversight have been building since last year’s chaotic primary and contentious presidential election, followed by approval of Georgia’s voting law that allows replacement of county election boards along with imposing new ID requirements for absentee ballots, limits on ballot drop boxes and many other changes.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp supported the effort to review Fulton’s elections as authorized by the voting law he signed in March.

“Fulton County has a long history of mismanagement, incompetence and a lack of transparency when it comes to running elections, including during the 2020 election,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said. “The State Election Board now has the ability to hold chronically underperforming counties accountable.”

The voting rights organization Fair Fight Action criticized the performance review, saying it’s motivated by partisan politics.

“It is not surprising that the Republican-controlled General Assembly has targeted Fulton County, Georgia’s largest county and home to the greatest number of voters of color in the state,” Fair Fight said in testimony submitted to the board. “This takeover process may be just the first step in the General Assembly’s anti-democratic attempts to impose partisan control of elections in certain jurisdictions.”

Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, a Republican from Gainesville, called for the review in late July, along with other Republican legislators from across the state and Fulton.

“Maintaining integrity in our elections is of the utmost importance to me and my colleagues in the state Senate. Unfortunately, Fulton County’s apparent disregard for election procedures and state law have called that integrity into doubt,” the senators wrote.

An opponent of the performance review, Bishop Reginald Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said he views it as a calculated effort to undermine elections in Fulton, where Biden received more votes than any other county in Georgia.

“It’s seeking to make sure that the voters of Fulton County do not have the opportunity to weigh in as they did in the presidential and Senate runoffs. That’s what this is all about,” said Jackson, who has sued to stop Georgia’s voting law. “I think there will be an attempt to take over, but we’re going to do all we can to make it extremely difficult for them to do that.”

Raffensperger praised the State Election Board for starting the performance review of Fulton.

“I have been saying for a long time that the state needs the authority to step in when counties have consistently failed their voters,” Raffensperger said. “I’m confident that the performance review team will do a good job, and I hope Fulton will cooperate with this process.”

The review panel will have an undetermined amount of time to evaluate the Fulton elections board’s oversight of elections, compliance with state laws and operation of voting equipment.

After the panel issues a written report of its findings, the State Election Board would have the authority to hold a hearing to determine whether sufficient cause exists to suspend Fulton’s elections board.

A majority of the State Election Board, made up of three Republicans and one Democrat, could then appoint a new elections superintendent to replace Fulton’s five-member elections board. The Fulton board has two Republicans, two Democrats and an appointee of the majority-Democratic County Commission.