Uneven enforcement? Rural Georgia county avoids review after election breach

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Coffee County lawmakers defer to GBI investigation

In a rural South Georgia county where election officials let outsiders copy confidential voting data, legislators haven’t called for the kind of state takeover or performance review that they supported in the state’s voting law.

Coffee County, a consistently Republican area, has escaped that level of scrutiny, unlike its urban neighbor 200 miles to the north, Fulton County. The largest source of Democratic votes in the state, Fulton has been going through a state evaluation for over a year.

The difference is that the takeover process in Fulton was initiated by a group of Republican state legislators who wanted to investigate their own county, while Coffee is represented entirely by Republican lawmakers who are less willing to invite a state review that could lead to replacing its elections board.

Coffee’s legislators said they’d rather let the GBI and secretary of state’s office investigate than take immediate action on their own.

“Ultimately, what we need is the truth, and then we will address any problems or hold people accountable,” said state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, a Republican from Douglas in Coffee County. “If there was illegal activity taking place through the Coffee County elections office, we need to figure that out.”

Subpoenaed documents recently revealed that a team of tech experts and supporters of then-President Donald Trump coordinated with Coffee election officials to copy files from the county’s elections server, ballot scanners and ballot memory cards on Jan. 7, 2021. Then they shared the data with Trump attorney Sidney Powell and election conspiracy theorists.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Both Coffee and Fulton have a recent history of problems in their election offices, but only one is facing the threat of state intervention.

Georgia’s voting law, Senate Bill 202, allows a county’s legislators to ask the State Election Board to evaluate a county’s performance, the first step toward a potential replacement of its elections board. A temporary superintendent would have broad authority over polling place locations, voter eligibility challenges and certification of election results.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts, a Democrat, said his county was targeted by Republican legislators based on politics.

“The obvious conclusion would be the difference between a Democratic county and a Republican county. We delivered votes for a Democratic candidate, and Coffee delivered the votes for a Republican candidate,” Pitts said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt — Senate Bill 202 was aimed at Fulton County.”

About 70% of Coffee voters supported Trump, while Fulton went to Democrat Joe Biden with 73% of the vote.

To be sure, Fulton has its share of difficulties, including long lines in the 2020 primary, slow reporting of results, and errors in an unofficial hand recount of the 2020 presidential election. But investigations discredited many allegations of fraud, while court cases and recounts repeatedly upheld Biden’s 12,000-vote win in Georgia.

Coffee also has problems besides the ongoing investigation into how election deniers got hold of sensitive records, which court documents indicate was facilitated by county election board member Eric Chaney and former Elections Director Misty Hampton. Neither has returned calls seeking comment.

Coffee election officials failed to reconcile recount results, an election system password was shared on YouTube, and Hampton resigned following accusations she had falsified time sheets.

State Sen. Tyler Harper, a Republican running for agriculture commissioner whose district includes Coffee, said he backs the GBI investigation, but he hasn’t sought a performance review. Under the voting law, a review can be initiated by at least one senator and representative from a small county such as Coffee, while larger counties need at least five legislators to sign on.

“What happened with the breach of security in Coffee County is unacceptable,” Harper said in a statement. “I fully support the ongoing GBI investigation to determine the facts and hold those responsible accountable.”

State Rep. James Burchett, a Republican whose redrawn district will include part of Coffee after this year’s elections, said he wants to wait for investigations to be finished before taking further action.

“We’re still investigating this thing. If there were laws broken, folks should be held accountable for that,” said Burchett, who doesn’t have a Democratic opponent in this fall’s elections.

The county’s other current legislator, state Rep. Clay Pirkle, didn’t return a call and email seeking comment. Pirkle is running for reelection against Democrat Mickey Brockington.

Brockington questioned why the county-level inquiry envisioned by the voting law, which passed along party lines in the General Assembly last year, is only being applied to Fulton. All of Coffee’s legislators — Harper, LaRiccia and Pirkle — voted for the law.

“It’s very inconsistent. It’s unfair,” Brockington said. “Change is needed.”