Takeover of Fulton elections considered by Georgia Republicans

State voting law allows removal of county election boards
Fulton County elections head Richard Barron speaks to the media days after the November presidential election. Questions about ballot scanning and audit tally sheet totals have raised the possibility of a performance review that could set in motion a move by the state to take over the county's election management. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)



Fulton County elections head Richard Barron speaks to the media days after the November presidential election. Questions about ballot scanning and audit tally sheet totals have raised the possibility of a performance review that could set in motion a move by the state to take over the county's election management. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

With a rising drumbeat of criticism, several Republican Georgia legislators are building a case for the state government to take over Fulton County elections.

The newfound power to fire local elections management, created by Georgia’s voting law, worries voting rights advocates, who say it could be abused for partisan purposes to tamper with the heavily Democratic county.

They see a threat predicated on relentless attacks — from former President Donald Trump to state lawmakers — that point to problems both real and imagined in the county. Though a state monitor reported sloppy management, three counts of Fulton’s ballots arrived at similar results and state election investigators haven’t found fraud.

Democrat Joe Biden beat Trump in the 2020 election, but the Republican and his followers said he was robbed and they targeted Fulton County for much of their ire. Judges have thrown out several lawsuits claiming the presidential election was stolen.

Under the new voting law that the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed this year, the State Election Board could replace a county’s election board after a performance review, audit or investigation, giving a temporary superintendent full authority over vote counting, polling places and staffing.

“What happens if this one single election superintendent refuses to certify any of Fulton’s votes in future elections?” Maggie Goldman, a Johns Creek real estate agent running for the County Commission, asked during public comment at a recent commission meeting. “That would truly be disenfranchising voters. And don’t think it can’t happen.”

Lawmakers are demanding answers from Fulton, with the possibility that unsatisfactory responses could start the takeover process.

State Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, a Gainesville Republican running for lieutenant governor, is considering calling for a performance review based on questions about ballot scanning and audit tally sheet totals. State Sen. Burt Jones, a potential Republican rival for lieutenant governor, wants legislative hearings.

State House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, proposed a GBI investigation to look for irregularities and fraud. And Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Fulton’s elections supervisor should be fired.

“All legal and procedural options are on the table if they don’t do their job,” said state Rep. Chuck Martin, a Republican representing the Alpharetta area in Fulton. “That’s not a threat. That’s just good policy.”

A performance review of Fulton’s elections would begin upon request of at least two state representatives and two state senators from the county, according to the Georgia voting law, Senate Bill 202. There are five Republican representatives and four GOP senators among the county’s 34 state legislators.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, a Republican from Alpharetta who supported Trump’s unproven fraud accusations, said he first wants more fact-finding before seeking to oust Fulton’s elections board, made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and an appointee of the majority-Democratic County Commission.

“It’s a chronic problem. They have a history of not running efficient elections, and we need to get to the bottom of why this is,” Beach said. “Fulton County elections on its best day is incompetent. We need to see how they can get their house in order.”

Fulton County Election Director Rick Barron almost lost his job after the county's elections board voted to fire him following last year's presidential election. But the County Commission rejected his dismissal in March. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

While legislators could start the takeover process, the decision about whether to do so rests with the State Election Board, made up of three Republicans and one Democrat. The General Assembly removed Raffensperger from the board after he certified last year’s election, refused Trump’s call to “find” more votes and debunked allegations of fraud.

Sara Tindall Ghazal, the Democratic Party’s representative on the board, said elections should be run by nonpartisan county election workers rather than an appointee beholden to politicians.

“If we really care about election integrity and keeping the process fair, we’re going to remove it as far as possible from elected officials,” Ghazal said. “Certain parties in this state want to be in control of elections in 2022 when they’re on the ballot, and elections should always be nonpartisan.”

The head of Fulton’s Senate delegation, Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan, said a takeover appears likely.

“They’re absolutely trying to build this record so that when and if the State Election Board wants to come in and take over Fulton County, they’ll have enough of a paper trail to do it,” said Jordan, who is running for attorney general.

Fulton has a record of election difficulties, including a history of long lines, slow results and administrative errors.

The county initially scanned nearly 200 ballots twice before a recount added 121 votes for Trump. Lines stretched over three hours at a Midtown precinct in last year’s primary after several precincts were consolidated into one. Some voters never received the absentee ballots they requested.

Conspiracy theories took root after video showed election workers pulling ballot containers from beneath a table late on election night after Republican poll watchers left. A state elections investigator said she saw no evidence of wrongdoing.

Matt Mashburn, a Republican member of the State Election Board appointed by the state Senate, said Georgia’s voting law includes safeguards that ensure performance reviews and public hearings before a county election board could be replaced. A replacement superintendent could serve up to nine months before being eligible for removal by the county government.

“At some point, things have to get so bad that the state has to reassert itself,” Mashburn said. “The critics who are saying this is just a Republican plot to take over Democratic counties, that’s not an accurate description of the board or the law.”

Five organizations wrote in a letter to Raffensperger on Monday that taking over Fulton’s elections would be “an unprecedented power grab.” The letter was signed by the Center for Popular Democracy, Fair Fight Action, the New Georgia Project Action Fund, Common Cause Georgia and Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates.

“Local county election boards must be able to manage their elections without fear of a partisan takeover or reprisal by state officials motivated by partisan goals,” the letter states. “Fulton County must not be a scapegoat for the secretary of state’s office to curry favor with an anti-voting radicalized political base.”

Issues with elections in Fulton, the state’s most populous county, have gone on for years. Raffensperger highlighted two decades of headlines printed on posters during a press conference in June 2020.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger called attention to Fulton County's numerous election problems over the years by displaying posters in June 2020 that bore headlines about troubles voters faced in several past elections. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

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Following a chaotic 2020 primary, the State Election Board appointed a monitor to ensure Fulton complied with a consent order requiring process improvements. The monitor, Carter Jones, said he saw no evidence of dishonesty or fraud during the November election, but he found examples of disorganization and poor accounting of ballots.

The Fulton elections board voted to fire Elections Director Rick Barron, but Barron kept his job when the County Commission rejected his dismissal in March.

Republican Commissioner Liz Hausmann said she’s seeing “business as usual” and not enough improvement following Jones’ report that outlined election problems.

“We’ve really put ourselves in a bad situation,” Hausmann said. “I have no reason to expect a good election” when voters return to the polls this year to elect Atlanta’s next mayor.

Hausmann, who wants a change in elections management, said she doesn’t think the County Commission would support a state takeover.

If the state tries to take over, Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts, a Democrat, said he’s “prepared to go toe-to-toe, word-for-word, blow-for-blow” to stop it, in court if necessary.

At least one other state, Florida, allows officials to install new local elections management based on poor performance. Republican governors appointed replacement administrators in Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties after elections in 2018.

Efforts to override Fulton’s elections management could gain steam amid a seemingly never-ending stream of accusations following Trump’s loss, including a lawsuit that seeks an in-depth ballot inspection. The ongoing turmoil creates the possibility that an elections takeover could occur in the runup to the 2022 election for governor.

“Unfortunately, Fulton County’s apparent disregard for election procedures and state law have called that integrity into doubt,” Miller wrote in a letter co-signed by 22 Republican senators. “At a minimum, these revelations undermine Georgians’ confidence in our elections, and I will not allow them to remain unresolved.”

Election takeovers in Georgia voting law

The State Election Board can remove a county election board and install a temporary superintendent, according to Georgia’s voting law, Senate Bill 202. The temporary superintendent would have broad authority to certify elections, decide polling places and fire staff.

The process for state intervention in a county’s elections could begin upon request by legislators representing a county or by a county commission, starting a performance review. The State Election Board could also initiate proceedings on its own.

Then the State Election Board would hold a preliminary hearing to determine whether sufficient cause exists to suspend a county election superintendent.