Georgia inches toward possible takeover of Fulton elections

Politics

FILE – In this Nov. 25, 2020 file photo, Fulton County Georgia election chief Rick Barron talks to reporters as workers scan ballots during a presidential recount in Atlanta. The Georgia State Board of Elections plans to appoint a review panel this week as part of a process that could lead to a takeover of elections in the state’s most populous county under a provision in the state’s sweeping new election law. Republican lawmakers cited the new law when they asked the state board last month to appoint the performance review board to investigate Fulton County’s handling of elections. The board plans to appoint the panel during its meeting Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s State Election Board inched forward Wednesday in a process set in motion by Republican lawmakers using a controversial provision of the state’s sweeping new election law that could ultimately lead to a takeover of elections in the state’s most populous county.

Fulton County, a Democratic bastion that includes most of the city of Atlanta, has long been a target of Republicans who complain of sloppiness and say they want to ensure state laws are being followed. Former President Donald Trump fixated on Fulton after the November general election, claiming without evidence that fraud in the county contributed to his narrow loss in the state.

Democrats and voting rights activists have said the takeover provision in the new law invites political interference in local elections and could suppress turnout.

“We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out, but it does feed the Democrats’ concerns that Republicans are going to interfere with the actions of the board which is in charge of elections in the county which gave Democrats their biggest total margin of votes,” University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said.

The state board was required to appoint the panel to investigate Fulton County’s handling of elections after receiving requests last month from Republican lawmakers who represent the county. The members of the bipartisan review panel are: Stephen Day, a Democratic appointee to the Gwinnett County election board; Ricky Kittle, a Republican appointee to the Catoosa County election board; and Ryan Germany, general counsel for the secretary of state’s office.

Fulton County accounts for about 11% of the state’s electorate, and President Joe Biden won nearly 73% of the county’s votes in November. The county is about 45.5% white, 44.5% Black and about 7.6% people of Asian descent, according to U.S. Census data.

Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts has said from the start that the new election law would be used to target Fulton County.

“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 very worst,” Pitts said Wednesday after the panel was appointed.

Georgia’s AME Bishop Reginald Jackson noted the high turnout by Black voters last year, which was instrumental in delivering Biden’s win in the state and the victory of two Democrats in a U.S. Senate runoff election in January.

“Today, it is clear that the Georgia Republican Party is scared. Since they no longer can win elections based on ideas, policy, leaderships or morals, their only pathetic course of action is to try to take legitimate votes away,” he said in an emailed statement.

The GOP House members who requested the review panel said in a letter to the State Election Board that the performance review was necessary to “assure voter confidence in our elections.”

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, a former secretary of state, applauded the panel’s appointment.

“Fulton County has a long history of mismanagement, incompetence, and a lack of transparency when it comes to running elections – including during 2020. I fully support this review,” he tweeted.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has vigorously defended the integrity of the 2020 election in the state, but has long criticized election operations in Fulton County. He didn’t participate in Wednesday’s vote on the panel because the state’s new election law removed him as chair of the State Election Board and made him a non-voting member.

It’s true that the county has a long history of election problems, including long lines, inefficiency in reporting election results and other problems, Bullock said, adding that some of those issues were especially acute during last year’s primary. After that troubled primary, the State Election Board entered into a consent order with the county that included appointing an independent monitor.

That monitor, Carter Jones, who has previous experience working on elections in other parts of the world, spent nearly 270 hours observing the county’s election processes from October through January, and said he observed sloppy practices and poor management but saw no evidence of “any dishonesty, fraud or intentional malfeasance.”

Before voting to approve the review panel, Sara Tindall Ghazal, the lone Democrat on the state board, said she expects the board will be under “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, but the fact remains that Fulton County voters have reported numerous problems for far longer than November 2020, particularly surrounding registration and absentee ballots,” Ghazal said. She urged the county to view this as “an opportunity to have fresh eyes on their systems and procedures and identify areas of improvement.”

Matt Mashburn, a Republican member of the state board, said it would be nice if the report the panel produces not only identifies problems but also reflects solutions that have already been identified.

“I encourage Fulton to keep trying to improve and not just throw up their hands and say it’s all in the hands of the board now,” he said.

Bullock, the political science professor, said the bipartisan nature of the panel will help legitimize its conclusions.

“The Democrats at least will be able to interject their concerns,” he said. “They certainly could be outvoted 2-1, but at least they could have some influence.”

The new law allows lawmakers who represent a given county to request a review of local election officials. The review board must issue a report after a thorough investigation.

The state board could eventually suspend the county board if it finds evidence county officials violated state election law or rules three times since 2018 and have not fixed violations. It could also remove the county board if it finds that during at least two elections over two years the board has shown “nonfeasance, malfeasance, or gross negligence.”

The State Election Board, currently with a 3-1 Republican majority, would appoint a temporary administrator to run Fulton County elections if it removes the county board.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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