No elections takeover: Georgia board clears Fulton County

State Election Board cites improvements in Fulton elections since 2020
Members of the State Election Board of Georgia on Tuesday unanimously voted against replacing Fulton County’s bipartisan election board following a performance review that Republican state legislators initiated. Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Members of the State Election Board of Georgia on Tuesday unanimously voted against replacing Fulton County’s bipartisan election board following a performance review that Republican state legislators initiated. Miguel Martinez /

A unanimous vote by the State Election Board on Tuesday scuttled a potential state takeover of elections in Fulton County following Georgia’s 2020 presidential race.

The board concluded that Fulton, a bastion of Democratic voters, made significant corrections to election operations over the past two years during a performance review started by Republican state legislators under a voting law that passed the General Assembly in 2021.

Though State Election Board members voted against replacing Fulton’s bipartisan election board, they also urged the county to continue its progress in preparation for next year’s presidential election.

“The performance review helped incentivize Fulton County to make improvements to their elections, which doesn’t surprise me. When under scrutiny, people do in fact change,” State Election Board Chairman Bill Duffey said. “There has to be an assurance of readiness for success in the 2024 election.”

Fulton election officials told the board that the performance review failed to find any violations of state laws as the county made substantial improvements to training, processes and procedures.

Patrise Perkins-Hooker, the county’s incoming election board chairwoman, said she would ask her board to work with other counties to make election operations more accountable statewide.

“It’s needed. This is all new territory, new ground. Fulton County has been paving the way, and we need to work together collectively,” Perkins-Hooker said. “Despite that we’ve had no violations, it’s very hard to navigate through this law.”

Under Georgia’s voting law passed in response to the 2020 election, a group of Republican legislators who represent parts of Fulton County initiated the performance review in July 2021 that could have led to a state-appointed administrator replacing the county’s elections board.

Though the performance review found “disorganization and a lack of a sense of urgency in resolving issues” in prior years, it said Fulton has made substantial changes since 2020.

Voters in the 2020 primary election experienced long lines amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and some reported they never received absentee ballots they had requested.

Then during the general election in November, the performance review cited 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 said that those problems could be explained by human errors, such as election workers who divided ballots by each candidate.

In addition, the review substantiated an allegation that almost 200 ballots were counted twice during the first vote count of the presidential election.

State Election Board member Matt Mashburn, a longtime Republican poll watcher in Fulton, said he saw “remarkable change” as the county underwent the performance review.

“Everybody involved in this process proved they were dedicated to making the experience for the voter and the results being trustworthy as their primary goal,” Mashburn said. “Everybody acted toward that goal, and I think the talking heads were wrong.”

No other county besides Fulton, where 73% of voters supported Democrat Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump, has been subjected to a potential state takeover. Statewide, three vote counts showed that Biden defeated Trump by about 12,000 votes.

Coffee County, where elections workers allowed Trump supporters to copy Georgia’s statewide voting software in early 2021, has not been subjected to a performance review or threatened with a state takeover. The lawmakers who represent Coffee County are Republican and didn’t ask for a performance review.

In the future, Duffey said he’d like to create an election checklist and examination process for county election offices across Georgia. That idea will be considered by the board in the upcoming months.

Sara Tindall Ghazal, a Democratic appointee to the board, said two-year investigations of county elections aren’t practical and the state government should find a better way.

“We could have similar reports on 158 other counties. It’s not just one county that has had problems,” Ghazal said. “We’ve reached a great point now, but we can’t let up. We have to continue to keep on top of the processes and make sure that we’re constantly improving.”

In a separate Fulton County case, the State Election Board dismissed an allegation that election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss scanned illegal ballots from “suitcases” at State Farm Arena late on election night in 2020. Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for Trump, had promoted the claim during a December 2020 state Senate hearing.

An investigation by the secretary of state’s office, the GBI and the FBI found “no evidence of any type of fraud as alleged” based on a review of unedited video footage from State Farm Arena. The video showed Freeman and Moss packing, unpacking and counting absentee ballots from official ballot containers, not suitcases.