Georgia board to review Fulton County elections, takeover possible

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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 on Wednesday took a step toward a possible eventual takeover of elections in the state’s most populous county under a process outlined in the state’s sweeping new voting law that critics argue could open elections up to political interference.

The board voted unanimously Wednesday to approve a bipartisan, three-person review panel to investigate the handling of elections in Fulton County, a Democratic bastion that includes most of the city of Atlanta.

The county has long been a target for Republicans. Their attacks increased after former President Donald Trump baselessly claimed that fraud in the county contributed to his narrow loss in the state. An independent monitor appointed as part of a consent order between the county and the State Election Board found no evidence of fraud or malfeasance.

GOP lawmakers last month asked the state board to appoint the performance review panel, initiating the process that could allow the Republican-controlled state board to replace the county’s board of registration and elections with an administrator it chooses.

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

The review panel approved by the state board includes: 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.

Before voting to approve the review panel, Sara Tindall Ghazal, the lone Democrat on the state board, noted that the board was required by law to appoint a panel after receiving the lawmakers’ request. She also said she expects that the board will be under “tremendous political pressure on both sides.”

“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. “I urge Fulton County to review this performance review board as an opportunity to have fresh eyes on their systems and procedures and identify areas of improvement.”

With a Democrat from the Atlanta area and a Republican from a more rural part of the state, as well as a lawyer from the secretary of state’s office, the review panel has been “carefully balanced to reflect all interests so that the accusations that we heard in the press that this is just a Republican hatchet job against Fulton County is not reflected by this slate of candidates,” said Matt Mashburn, a Republican member of the State Election Board.

Mashburn said it would be nice if the report the panel produces not only identifies problems but also reflects solutions that have already been identified or implemented.

“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.

The Republican lawmakers who asked for the review said they want to ensure that election officials in the county have been following state voting laws and regulations. Democrats and voting rights activists have said the new takeover provision could allow political interference in local elections.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has vigorously defended the integrity of the 2020 election in the state, but has long criticized election operations in Fulton County. The state’s new election law removed Raffensperger as chair of the State Election Board and made him a non-voting member.

Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts said the effort to take over the county’s elections is driven by false claims of fraud pushed by Trump and his supporters.

“While I understand the State Elections Board had no choice in this matter, it is still outrageous to see the Big Lie and demands of conspiracy theorists continue to progress,” Pitts said Wednesday after the review board was appointed. “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.”

Under the new law, lawmakers who represent a given county may request a review of local election officials. The review board is to be composed of “three competent persons,” including an employee of the elections division of the secretary of state’s office and two “local election officials.”

The review board must issue a report after conducting a thorough investigation into the competency in the maintenance and operation of election equipment, the administration of registration and elections, as well as compliance with state law.

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 finds wrongdoing. The county board could seek reinstatement. If the state board refuses, its administrator would remain in place for at least nine months. The administrator would have the authority to make any personnel changes related to running elections.

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