Georgia Board to Review Elections in Fulton County

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A Fulton county worker continues to count absentee ballots at State Farm Arena on November 6, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.
A Fulton county worker continues to count absentee ballots at State Farm Arena on November 6, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Image: Jessica McGowan via Getty Images)

The GOP-controlled State Election Board of Georgia has voted to appoint a bipartisan panel of lawmakers to review Fulton County’s election management. The review could lead to the election board taking over the management of elections in Georgia’s most populous county.

The decision to review elections is the first of its kind under the Election Integrity Act of 2021, which Governor Republican Brian Kemp passed in March. The law allows the Secretary of State, upon request by state lawmakers, to take over the administration of elections in any county that has a poor record of managing elections.

Fulton County is known to have a long history of problems with conducting elections. During last year’s primary, the issues became so severe that the State Election Board appointed an independent monitor to evaluate the county’s election processes.

The monitor, Carter Jones, spent 270 hours between October and January 2020, observing how the county carried out its various election processes. Though Jones stated that he did not see any specific instances of fraud, intentional malfeasance, or dishonesty, he admitted to witnessing poor management and sloppy practices. 

For the election review, the state board has appointed a three-person panel—Ricky Kittle, a Republican appointee on the Catoosa County election board; Stephen Day, a Democrat appointee on the Gwinnett County election board; and Ryan Germany, general counsel for Georgia Secretary of State Republican Brad Raffensperger.

The review team is tasked with conducting a thorough investigation into the competency of operating and maintaining election equipment, oversight and administration of registration and election, and compliance with state regulations and laws. The three-member panel will then issue a report detailing their findings and recommendations. A preliminary hearing will be conducted within 90 days; then the State Election Board has to decide whether the matter must move forward to a full hearing.

If the investigation reports any serious irregularities in the county, the election board could replace the county’s board of registration and elections with its own administrator. However, this can only be done if there is evidence that county election officials violated state election laws three times since 2018 and have failed in correcting such violations.

The State Election Board can then appoint a temporary administrator who will run elections in Fulton County and will remain in power for at least nine months. The administrator will have the authority to replace any personnel who are part of the election infrastructure, including all poll officers and the director of elections. 

Reactions

Democrats have criticized the panel review. Democrat Robb Pitts, Chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, called the review a “cynical ploy” to undermine faith in elections. He accused the review of being the result of “shameful partisan politics at its very worst.” Pitts had earlier opposed the Election Integrity Act of 2021.

Democrat Tindall Ghazal took a more nuanced stance. She admitted that the review panel would be under “tremendous political pressure” from both sides to come to “preordained conclusions.” Ghazal expressed her trust in the board members, hoping that they would resist such pressures and fulfill the task with an open mind. 

“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 told CNN.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor from the University of Georgia, believes that the review feeds into Democrat concerns that Republicans want to interfere in the actions of the election board.

However, Bullock admits that Fulton County has seen numerous issues with the conduct of elections in the past, including inefficient reporting of voting results and long lines. He feels that the bipartisan nature of the panel should help legitimize the findings.

“The Democrats at least will be able to interject their concerns… They certainly could be outvoted 2-1, but at least they could have some influence,” Bullock told the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Republicans are strongly in support of the review. “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,” Governor Kemp tweeted.

Secretary of State Republican Brad Raffensperger also welcomed the decision. He stated that he has been saying “for a long time” that the state must be given authority to step in when counties have failed their voters consistently.

“I’m pleased that the state finally has that authority and that the State Election Board has taken the first step today. I’m confident that the performance review team will do a good job, and I hope Fulton will cooperate with this process,” Raffensperger told CNN.

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