ATLANTA (AP) — 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.
The heavily Democratic county includes most of the city of Atlanta and is home to about 11% of the state’s active registered voters. Former President Donald Trump fixated on the county after his narrow loss last year in Georgia, pushing unfounded claims of fraud as evidence the election was stolen from him.
The GOP lawmakers seeking the review say they are concerned about sloppiness in the administration of the county’s elections and want a review board to assess whether local officials have been complying with state voting laws and regulations.
Democrats and voting rights activists have said the new takeover provision in state law leaves the door open for political interference in the electoral process and could allow suppression of votes. They’ve said the county conducted a successful election last year and the review is unnecessary.
Under the new law, lawmakers who represent a given county may request a review of local election officials, defined in the law as the election superintendent. In Fulton County, that’s the county board of registration and elections.
Once the State Election Board receives such a request, it has to appoint a review board within 30 days. 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 is tasked with conducting a complete and thorough investigation into the competency in the maintenance and operation of election equipment, the administration and oversight of registration and elections and compliance with state law and regulations. Then the board is to issue a report with evaluations and recommendations.
Based on a recommendation by the review board, the governing authority of the county can petition to have the county election board suspended, or the State Election Board can take that action on its own. The State Election Board would then do a preliminary investigation followed by a preliminary hearing.
During that preliminary hearing, which would be held within 90 days of the receipt of the petition, the State Election Board would decide whether the matter should be dismissed or whether it should proceed to a full hearing.
The state board could 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, including replacing the director of elections and all poll officers.
The state board also is charged with setting rules for conducting a preliminary investigation and hearing. Once the rules are proposed, they will be subject to a public comment period before they can be adopted.
Fulton County has a long history of election problems and has been a favorite punching bag for Republicans. The county’s primary election last year was marred by problems, including hourslong lines and absentee ballots that were requested and never received.
County officials acknowledged the problems, but said many of the most serious issues were related to the coronavirus pandemic. They spent millions of dollars and made changes ahead of the general election in November to ensure a smoother performance. An independent monitor was also appointed as part of a consent order reached entered into by the county and the State Election Board.
That monitor, Carter Jones, observed Fulton County’s election processes from October through January. He wrote that he witnessed “sloppy processes” and “systemic disorganization” but did not see “any illegality, fraud or intentional malfeasance.” He concluded major changes and a managerial shakeup were needed.
While Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has vigorously defended the integrity of the state’s election results, he has often criticized Fulton County and has repeatedly called for the firing of the county elections director Rick Barron and registration chief Ralph Jones.
Barron survived the county election board’s attempt earlier this year to fire him after the county board of commissioners rejected the election board’s recommendation. In a letter dated July 16, Ralph Jones announced his resignation as registration chief, effective Aug. 6.
This story was first published on Aug. 17, 2021. It was updated on Aug. 20, 2021 to remove an erroneous reference to a 90-day deadline for the review panel’s investigation. There is no specified time limit on the panel’s investigation. This story also clarifies what happens after the review panel finishes investigating.