The opening salvo over who ultimately will control elections in Georgia’s largest county has been fired.

Speculation has been mounting for weeks over whether the General Assembly is close to taking over the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections. The board is in the cross-hairs of Georgia elections czar Brad Raffensperger for alleged mismanagement. Meanwhile, a group of senators also are questioning the board’s leadership and want an accounting of its top manager’s performance.

Secretary of state Raffensperger wants to use the state’s new elections reform law to clean house in Fulton elections after what he says has been a legacy of poor performance. Under the new Georgia Election Integrity Act, the State Election Board could replace a local election board after a performance review, audit, or investigation, giving a temporary superintendent power over vote counting, polling places, and staffing.

The political flap intensified last week after Fulton’s top elected official vowed to fight any efforts to take over the county’s election system.

Fulton Chair Robb Pitts, a Democrat, said a state takeover would be tantamount to a “hostile takeover.” For that reason, Pitts told Atlanta Civic Circle he is looking into legal options. He would not elaborate on those options. He did, however, note three separate audits of Georgia’s 2020 presidential election results found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

The political maelstrom comes as new Fulton leadership takes over the embattled elections board. What direction the board is headed under the new leadership remains to be seen.

Former Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan who assumed the chairmanship of the Fulton election’s board in March did not respond to repeated efforts from Atlanta Civic Circle for comments. 

Before Wan joined the board, its members had their own internal strife over how the office was managed. The board voted along party lines to fire Elections Director Richard Barron earlier this year, but the county commission stepped in and blocked his firing.

Meanwhile, other key political players in the state vs. Fulton election flap have weighed in with their assessment.

The possibility of a state takeover of local elections “sets a dangerous precedent,” voting rights activist Theron Johnson told Atlanta Civic Circle.

“Whoever has majority control of the legislature gets to gain the ability to arbitrarily interfere in the democratic process,” said Johnson, Georgia State director for All On The Line, a national campaign created to improve equity in the political and voting process. “That’s not how democracy works. This has evolved from rhetoric to public policy and that has consequences. It’s very, very dangerous.”

A newly-installed State Election Board member said the Fulton election’s new leadership should be given time and support to fix the problems. She also questioned the timing of the Secretary of State’s actions.

“The Secretary of State’s office has always had the authority to go to court and run an election, on behalf of a county,” Sara Tindall Ghazal, an attorney sworn-in last week as the newest State Election Board member, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “If this has been such a problem for so many years, why hasn’t the Secretary of State’s office, under any authority, ever attempted to exercise that right by going to a judge and having judicial oversight?” 

Ghazal also is the former director of the state Democratic Party’s Voter Protection program. 

“It’s incumbent on the State Election Board, the Secretary of State and whoever else believes they have a vested interest in this to try to work with the [Fulton elections] board,” Ghazal said. “That’s the way Georgia law structures our election. We imbue authority in local counties.”

“I’m not going to deny that there have been significant problems with Fulton County and other counties as well,” she said. 

Fulton had already been under a consent decree with the Secretary of State’s office after its June 2020 primaries led to long lines, Ghazal noted. 

“So they had gone with a judge. They were working with the county. They had a consultant there throughout the election process after the June primary,” Ghazal said. “So it would make sense to review the findings of that consultant which they did in an earlier election board meeting and go from there.”

But some observers believe a state takeover is highly unlikely.

“The legal bar is quite high for a state takeover,” Ghazal noted “They can’t do it without strong legal justification.”

One long-time Fulton politician called what’s going on within the Fulton Election office “a bad situation.”

“I don’t understand quite frankly why Mr. [Fulton Election Director Richard] Barron would want to continue to work in such a toxic environment,” Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann, a Republican, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “Obviously, there’s a lot of folks that think he should not be there.”

Hausmann is well-versed in Fulton’s election problems. She recalls getting 2 a.m. post-election phone calls from frustrated candidates still waiting for results. Before becoming a commissioner, Hausmann worked at the Fulton elections board from 2000 to 2002.

“So I have knowledge from that side as well of what should happen,” she said. “We didn’t have these kinds of problems.” it’s not just a partisan thing for me.”

Hausman said she understands the state’s intervention.

“Unfortunately, we have not dealt with it internally. We have not made the management changes or improvements that are necessary, and so now the legislature is stepping in,” she said. “I’m not telling you I agree with it, but I understand it. I understand the frustration of the largest county in the state not being able to do the basics in providing transparent, fair, and accessible elections to everyone in Fulton County. If we can’t do that [then] of course, it’s going to get the attention of the state.”

Meanwhile, Raffensperger defended Georgia’s new election reform law last week calling it “an accountability measure.” 

“The State Elections Board doesn’t want to take over any county,” Raffensperger said. He was featured speaker at the “Reimagining Democracy Series: Disinformation & Democracy,” a town hall-style Zoom event.

“But eventually if a county has been failing since 1993 like, for example, Fulton County, now we finally have an accountability measure that if they don’t improve, the state election board can then look at replacing officials and making sure that we have well-run elections so all 159 counties run their elections well.”

The town hall-style Zoom event was sponsored by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, Issue One, and the Atlanta-based National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

“What we’ve tried to do with SB 202… is make election management easier for election officials, but also help voters restore that confidence that’s been hit from both sides of the aisle,” Raffensperger said during the speakers’ series.

Gabe Sterling, the chief operating officer in the Secretary of State’s office also spoke at the event. 

The new law is shrouded in misinformation, especially about the state’s role in local election procedures, Sterling said. “The reality of the law is there’s a lot of due process,” he added.

It begins with a 30-day investigation, said Sterling, who oversees Georgia’s elections system.

The case then goes back to the State Elections Board, which then determines if that local board needs to be replaced. After nine months, local officials “can step in and say ‘You need to go’ or they can appeal to a Superior Court, saying ‘there is no basis for this’,” Sterling noted. 

“So, the reality of this is not that the state legislature can come in and overturn results,” Sterling said. “That’s what many people on the left side of the spectrum have said about the law. It’s simply not true.” 

You can see Raffensperger and Sterling’s comments here.

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