Cathy Woolard has served in the Peace Corps and on the Atlanta City Council. She has run for mayor and faced the demons and dragons that come with a 40-year career in politics, but nothing could have prepared the 64-year-old politician for her latest job.
Woolard has recently been tasked with repairing the reputation of Georgia’s largest elections operation to prevent a state takeover. All while finding a new director.
Six weeks into her appointment as chair of the Fulton County Registration and Elections Board, she is inundated with board meetings, special-called meetings, emails, and, of course, elections. And an upcoming runoff.
“I had no idea it would be this much,” Woolard told Atlanta Civic Circle. “It’s a huge lift.”
Woolard credited Fulton elections director Rick Barron with election-integrity innovations such as a new barcoding system and secure metal boxes in which to store paper ballots when voting machines fail. He is also largely responsible for consolidating Fulton’s elections operations under one roof. The new complex should be ready before the primaries in May, Woolard said.
Atlanta Civic Circle talked with Woolard at length about Barron’s impending departure and the work that lies ahead. Here is that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Tammy Joyner: Were you surprised by Rick Barron’s decision to resign?
Cathy Woolard: I didn’t know Rick when I started and have really grown to like and respect him for the incredible job he’s done over the last eight years as director. I can see the incredibly high esteem in which his colleagues hold him. Honestly, I felt a little sad about [his announced departure], but he is such a professional. He notified us so that we had the maximum amount of time to find a replacement before we get into the next election cycle.
You mentioned that Barron has brought innovations to the department. Tell me about some of them.
In the event that voting machines go down, there are now secure places for paper ballots to be stored until they can be retrieved. They have created a new barcoding accounting system for the thousands of pieces of equipment that have to be tracked as they go out and as they come in. We’ll [also] be moving into a facility that has everything and everybody in it—as opposed to offices in one building and warehousing in another.
Is his decision to resign the right decision for right now?
I think the decision is the right decision for him right now. He’s been there eight years. It has been very, very difficult work. He’s got a family, and the child has been witness to the death threats [he’s received]. It’s challenging to think of anybody being in any job for eight years. He’s done his time for us. This is what he wanted to do. It’s his decision. [But] I’m not going to let him go very quickly: We still have another runoff election to run. Having Rick here to help us is a gift.
In becoming head of Fulton’s elections board, you seemed to have stepped into a hornet’s nest. Why did you take the job?
Well, probably I didn’t think it through clearly enough. [She laughs.] Rob Pitts and I worked together on the city council. He called me and asked me if I would be willing to do it. I felt like this was a really important time for leadership that understands the political rockiness that we’re in—not from a partisan perspective but from a pure How do we make sure we still have democracy in this country? perspective. That’s always been really important to me and has kept me coming back year after year.
Were you surprised that some people were opposed to your appointment?
I never cease to be surprised at what people can make of things. Anybody who has ever worked with me for a minute knows that, regardless of my personal politics or what my feeling is about any given issue, I have always worked well across the aisle. I have always worked well with people who are different from me. I find it much more interesting to show up with people that people don’t expect me to show up with. To hear people who don’t know me being disparaging about how I might work in this environment is understandable, given where we are, but really unpleasant.
The last year has been tough for Fulton’s elections operations. Recounts, allegations of poor handling of past elections, a possible state takeover. How do you, as board chair, restore order for a staff that has been through the wringer, including death threats and now the departure of their director?
Well, we want to make sure the people who have been running this department, maybe even longer than Rick’s been here, understand how much we appreciate them. We want to make sure they have the resources they need to continue to do a good job. And we want to try as much as we can to protect them from [distractions].
What type of distractions?
When early voting started a couple of weeks ago, we had two individuals challenge the voter registrations of over 600 people. Because of [ Georgia’s Election Integrity Act of 2021], we had to respond and have a hearing on these 600 people’s voter registration within 10 days. We had to notify 600 people that there was going to be a hearing. We had to talk to the Secretary of State’s office and find out the process, where these people were, if they had anything pending for them. Half of them were already on the Secretary of State’s list to be removed. But there’s a process for that, right? We had to then have a special-called hearing [with] the law department, the voter registration department, Rick, and some of his senior people. All of this is happening while they’re trying to do early voting. There was no validity to the complaints and people ultimately withdrew their complaints. [The department also receives] so many open records requests that we have to have staff dedicated to doing that full time.
Have you talked with the elections office staff about their concerns?
I’ve been trying. They have been very busy doing the turnaround so that we can have early voting in advance of the runoff. We have to get all of those machines back in and secure the information. Then they have to reprogram them for the upcoming elections, test them all, and then do it all over again in less than three weeks’ time—with Thanksgiving and the Braves winning a World Series and Veteran’s Day [thrown in]. I’m trying to talk to them but not make that another burden they have to deal with.
You’ve been in your job as chair for six weeks now. What do you make of it so far?
There are five of us on the board. We have one scheduled meeting a month. I’ve already had three or four meetings in six weeks. I’m on call constantly. Emailed constantly. It really is more than just letting me come down to one meeting for a couple of hours. Now we’ll be [searching] for a director, we’ll be [overseeing] a runoff, and we’ll move right into the next. My hat’s off to the people who’ve done it for a lot longer than me.
What do you see is your role in helping to restore confidence in Fulton’s election so that the state won’t take over the operation?
To ensure a smooth transition, to ensure we don’t lose talent on our team as a result of the transition.
How do you see your role going forward?
At this particular moment, just trying to find ways to support all of the staff right now, including Rick, through this transition. That’s not easy in any organization, particularly not in this one where you’ve got somebody leaving that was pretty much adored by his staff.
What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned thus far in the job?
The Fulton County Registration and Elections department is in good shape. They run good elections, the primary election last year notwithstanding. Remember, it’s lots of different jurisdictions, 260 precincts, 2000 or more volunteers in addition to about 40 to 50 paid staff [members].
How do you restore confidence in Fulton’s election operations and prevent a state takeover?
I don’t think the state wants to take over because if the state takes over, the criticism isn’t going to stop. It’s in nobody’s benefit to initiate that process.
But what do you see is your role in helping to restore confidence so the state won’t take over?
Well, right now it’s to ensure a smooth transition, to ensure we don’t lose talent on our team as a result of the [Barron] transition. What’s uppermost in my mind is that we do the municipal runoff elections well in three weeks and that we ensure the stability of the department. Then we begin a search and hire someone who lifts the department even higher. If we achieve all those things, I don’t think for a minute that that will stop the criticism. So we will just keep doing our job, running good elections, being prepared, and following the rules. One day, maybe people will go somewhere else and . . .
Pick on somebody else?
[She laughs.] Pick on somebody else. But for now, the scrutiny is here, whether we want it or not.
What are the misperceptions that people have about Fulton elections operations? What should people know?
I think right now, nationwide, there’s a huge amount of mistrust, most of which is entirely unjustified.
You’ve been in the political arena for 40 years. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
I try not to take personally the stuff that either doesn’t matter or isn’t true. You can’t be distracted by that. It’s important to me to try to work with people who may or may not be like me, to see if we can find some common ground. [In this new job], we have a good board. We know how to express differences and try to come to a conclusion. Hopefully, we can stay that way. You see a goal and manage the goal. Once you’ve made a decision, you address the consequences of that decision. You can’t look back or second guess yourself.
What do you do to relax when things get to be too much?
I don’t manage stress very well. But I am a long-distance backpacker, and I go off the grid as often as I possibly can. I don’t listen to anything or see anything except usually trees and beautiful scenery.
There’s no favorite because they’re all wonderful, but I took a group of 10 people backpacking in August for a week in Iceland, and it was incredibly beautiful. It was harrowingly windy, rainy, and crazy in terms of the weather but, in the end, it was beautiful.
That was in August, so that sort of prepared you for what you were getting ready to go into?
Yeah, that appointment has sort of taken the shine off but I was doing pretty good anyway at that time. [She laughs.] Maybe that’s why I said yes.