Panel: State shouldn’t take over Georgia county’s elections

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s most populous county has a history of problems with its elections but has also shown considerable improvement, and the state should not step in to take over its elections, a bipartisan review panel said.

The State Election Board appointed the three-person panel in August 2021 after Republican lawmakers used a provision of a sweeping election law passed earlier that year to request a review of Fulton County’s handling of elections. The report was submitted on Friday to the board and the Secretary of State’s office.

Fulton County includes most of the city of Atlanta and is home to about 11% of the state’s electorate. A Democratic stronghold, it has long been targeted by Republicans.

The report says that in previous years Fulton County’s elections have been plagued by “disorganization and a lack of a sense of urgency in resolving issues.” But it also says the county showed “significant improvement” from 2020 to 2022, former staff members have left and “new staff can bring new energy and renewed commitment.”

The Fulton County Board of Elections and Registration is a driving force behind those improvements, the report says.

“Replacing the board would not be helpful and would in fact hinder the ongoing improvements to Fulton County elections,” it says.

County officials applauded the findings.

“The Performance Review Board’s report affirms what we already know — our staff work every day to serve Fulton County voters and deliver free and fair elections in compliance with the law,” Cathy Woolard, chair of the Fulton elections board, said in a news release.

State Election Board Chair William Duffey said last month that the board will discuss the panel’s recommendations at its Feb. 7 meeting.

Republican lawmakers whose districts include parts of Fulton in July 2021 submitted a letter to the State Election Board noting the county’s history of problems and demanding answers.

Former President Donald Trump had zeroed in on the county after he lost Georgia by a slim margin in the November 2020 general election. In phone calls to state election officials and in public comments, Trump made unfounded claims of widespread election fraud in Fulton.

Actions he took as he tried to overturn his election loss, including a phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, led Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to open an ongoing investigation into whether Trump and others illegally meddled in the state’s election.

The review panel named by the State Election Board included 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.

The panel considered the county’s performance in 2020 and observed operations before, on and after Election Day for the 2021 municipal elections and the 2022 primary and general votes, the report says. The panel also relied on help from The Carter Center, which regularly monitors elections around the world and was invited to observe the 2022 general election in Fulton County.

The county has “a long and well-documented history of issues administering elections,” the report says, including long lines and inefficiency in reporting results. Its shortcomings were particularly pronounced during the 2020 primary, resulting in a consent order between the county and the State Election Board that included the appointment of an independent monitor for the general election that year.

That monitor, Carter Jones, said he found sloppy practices and poor management but no evidence of “any dishonesty, fraud or intentional malfeasance.”

Many of the county’s issues in 2020 stemmed from or were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but some of the county’s responses to that made things even worse, the panel found.

The county’s election process was more organized in 2022 than in 2021, which showed improvement over 2020, the report says. A number of changes, including implementing an inventory tracking system for elections equipment, creating new management positions and filling others, helped to spread responsibility and improve performance in key areas, according to the report.

The panel nevertheless recommended areas for additional improvement, such as poll worker training, general organization and polling place layout review.

The controversial takeover provision in the 2021 election law allows state lawmakers who represent a county to request a review of local election officials and their practices. The State Election Board must then appoint a review panel that is required to investigate and issue a report.

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

If a county board is removed, the state board would appoint a temporary administrator.

Democrats and voting rights activists complained when the law was passed that the takeover provision would open the door for political interference in local elections and could suppress turnout. Republicans said it was necessary to make sure county election officials are following the law.

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