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Rick Barron is leaving the building – but not before he gets a few things off of his chest.
After nine years heading Georgia’s largest elections operation, Barron has weathered enough criticism, controversy, and procedural changes to give him a full, unvarnished understanding of the political landscape.
He’s seen the future, and he’s had enough. Barron’s last day as the Fulton County Director of Registration & Elections is April 1.
“I just don’t want to put up with this hyper-partisan atmosphere,” the 55-year-old told Atlanta Civic Circle, insisting that his departure was his decision – not his bosses’.
Allegations of long lines and mismanagement have dogged Fulton election officials for years. The claims escalated during the 2020 elections to false allegations of vote fraud by county elections staff.
Last August, Georgia’s State Election Board appointed a bipartisan performance review panel to investigate potential election law violations by Fulton officials – a move that, under the controversial Georgia Election Integrity Act (SB 202) enacted last year, could lead to the takeover of the Fulton elections office. SB 202 allows the State Election Board to take control of county election offices deemed poorly performing. The panel reviewing Fulton’s elections operations is expected to release its findings any day now.
“It just causes too much stress, and the money isn’t worth it,” Barron said.” I used to be able to leave it at work – and it got to the point where I wasn’t leaving it at work anymore.”
After Georgia’s acrimonious 2020 election, the scrutiny, public harassment, and threat of a state takeover have all taken their toll on Barron’s mostly Black staff. Barron, who oversees a staff of 45, said more workers left in 2021 than in his previous eight years combined.
The Fulton County Registration and Elections Board fired Barron last year, following Fulton’s primary debacle in June 2020, when inadequately-trained poll workers dealt with glitches, new voting equipment, and hours-long lines of voters during a pandemic.
But the county commissioners overruled the decision, voting along party lines to keep him. The stress affected the single father’s 12-year old-daughter and contributed to the extra pounds he’s packed on. It’s also led to a “blood pressure issue,” Barron said.
Barron is among a half-dozen county election officials in Georgia who have either left in the last year or are leaving, joining a nationwide exodus of election workers. In addition to Fulton, there have been top-level defections in the DeKalb, Gwinnett, Augusta-Richmond and Macon-Bibb election offices.
Barron’s grueling tenure, along with a raft of changes from SB 202 have given him clarity about the challenges facing state election workers going forward. “The way elections operate in Georgia is already adversarial, because the state election board is set up to be adversarial against the counties,” he said. “And now, this [new election reform law] is going to make it even worse.”
As for Georgia’s political climate?
“I’ve lost a lot of respect for a sizable number of the elected officials in Georgia, both at the county level and, especially, at the legislature,” Barron said.
“It’s just this cynical racial politics they’re playing. It’s all about ideology and putting party over country, party over constituents – and their cowardice in the face of their own extremist constituents. I just can’t believe how cowardly a lot of these elected officials are,” he said.
MORE FROM BARRON:
Here’s what Barron had to say about the upcoming election season, election reform, politics – and the safety of election workers. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Tammy Joyner: What’s the biggest risk at the polls on voting days this election season?
Rick Barron: If you’re having a large [staff] turnover, you’re going to have risk. A large turnover of experienced workers means you’re losing institutional knowledge. The way the legislature is pushing these [election reform] laws through – all they’re doing is making the environment worse. They want to criminalize mistakes, human error.
None of them have set foot in an elections office to actually see what happens. They don’t care about workers getting harassed. You don’t hear any of the legislators ever saying one thing to their constituents to stop the harassment. They stay silent because they’re afraid of their constituents.
The passage of Senate Bill 202 last year is causing big changes. How is the landscape different than during the 2020 General Election?
SB 202 shortened the amount of time [local election offices] have to mail ballots, which could actually end up increasing line length, especially in a November election. You can only start mailing ballots 30 days before an election. By the time those ballots hit mailboxes, you’re looking at about the time early voting is starting.
When people don’t have their absentee-by-mail ballots, they [may] vote in person. That creates paperwork in the polling place, because they have to cancel those ballot applications. The legislature made a change to the law without thinking through how it was going to affect poll workers and voters, in terms of lines.
Georgia’s new election reforms are intended to make elections more transparent and restore voter confidence. Thoughts?
They create voter confusion. The legislature created inconsistencies in the process. They also took away the ability of counties to send ballot applications out to people 65 and older, or disabled.
In Fulton, we’ve been sending out ballot applications to people in those two categories for years at the beginning of the year. The form was pre-filled, so all they had to do was sign it and send it back. We would give them an absentee ballot by mail for the year.
So certain services that voters were used to, they’re no longer going to get. Legislators do that, and it’s the counties that bear the brunt of the blame.
Do you believe the new election reform efforts were done with Fulton County in mind?
Yeah, [removing the mobile voting] buses [was done] with Fulton in mind. We were the first county to go out and get grants in 2020 for mobile voting. We told the rest of the counties about it.
Then, there’s the performance review panel they put into SB 202, which is a political weapon. That was set up with Fulton County in mind, because Fulton and the other metro-Atlanta counties have all turned blue. [The new law permits either a county’s Board of Commissioners or two House and two Senate members representing it to initiate a performance review of local elections officials.]
The legislators who initiated the performance review panel to try to take over Fulton County are all white, and it’s a majority-minority county. Me and one other person who work for Fulton County [election office] are the only white staffers. The rest [of the 45-member staff] are Black.
So the legislature’s playing Old South politics, because all of the legislators who signed those letters to start the [Fulton] performance review panel are white. They’re insecure about minority voting power. That’s really what this comes down to. There’s a racial undercurrent to all of this legislation coming through.
What’s behind it?
[Former President Donald] Trump has basically given all of these people the license to feel okay about resurrecting these Old South political maneuvers. He seems to have taken the shame away from it.
Many election workers have been harassed in the past two years. Were you?
Yes. Most of it happened between Christmas Day 2020 through New Year’s Day 2021. That’s when I got the most calls and emails. It was my office phone and email. Part of it was because One America News basically put out a plea for all the people who watch that television station [to call me].
One of my staff members, Ruby Freeman, was visited at home multiple times. And Shaye Moss’s grandmother was visited at home, and she had nothing to do with any of it. She even had people trying to push their way into her house.
[Freeman and her daughter, Moss, who served as a temporary 2020 election worker, are suing One America News Network and Rudy Giuliani for defamation after they were falsely accused of counting fake mail-in ballots at the State Farm Arena.]
We’re in an acrimonious political climate. Do you think that will create more of these self-appointed vigilantes?
Yeah. Rather than focusing on the harassment of election workers and protecting them, the legislature is doing things to target them, by creating a political police force through the [Georgia Bureau of Investigation]. You’re giving the governor and whoever oversees the GBI and the [State Election Board] power to go after county workers and harass them. That’s just going to encourage all these other kooks out there to do the same thing.
There are groups to protect voters on election days. Who is protecting election workers?
Local police are supposed to do that. But they say there has to be a severe threat of bodily harm before they’ll get involved.
How is Fulton handling security in case people start harassing workers?
They’ll have police roaming between sites or in sites, depending on the agreements they have with those locations. A lot of these elected officials need to start confronting their constituents and tell them that the election was not stolen.
The Fulton elections office has been under scrutiny a long time. What do you want people to know about the department?
In June 2020 [for the Georgia primary], things didn’t go well. We had a new voting system. We weren’t able to train anyone in person because of the pandemic. The avalanche of absentee-ballots-by-mail overloaded our technical abilities.
We didn’t have the normal complement of early voting sites for the primary because six out of every seven of our usual early-voting workers declined to work, because of the pandemic. We lost a quarter of our election-day sites. And lack of training really hurt us. We had a lot of issues.
But the Secretary of State framed it as though we were the only county that had a problem, which was completely untrue. You can go down the list of problems that have happened in other counties. The remainder of the year, I kept hearing this narrative – and it’s pushed by some legislators – that we had lines in 2020. We didn’t have any lines in 2020, except in the June election. The other five elections we ran that year went smoothly.
Media stories around November 2020 and January 2021 were all positive. The legislators started holding hearings, starring America’s court jester, Rudy Giuliani – and they actually took Giuliani seriously, and Trump was doing his thing. Then, some of the local politicians decided to start jumping [on the bandwagon]. It wasn’t the media. It was more the elected officials, who were scared of their constituents.
Do you regret having taken the job?
No. I feel like it’s been an honor to be in this role and to have made it this long. The five people who preceded me lasted a total of six years. I took this job knowing what it came with. I recognize there are politicians out there who have their own agendas.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your 23 years in election administration?
I’ve worked in multiple states in many counties. The people who work in election offices are not the problem. They are a dedicated, committed group. People should feel confident that the people who work in their elections offices are good, hard working people trying to do a good job with the resources they’re given.
The other thing: if you have a toxic leader like [former] President Trump, it’s possible to infect the party from top to bottom. The elected officials just don’t seem to have any limit to the misinformation they’ll buy into or perpetuate.
Any words of wisdom for your successor?
Rely on your staff. Pay attention to the voters, elected officials, activists, activist groups, and the community. Listen to their input. Ignore certain elements that are just there to be negative.
The Rick Barron Files
Title: Fulton County Director of Registration & Elections
Annual salary: A recent 7% cost-of-living increase put his salary at $160,000.
Year in election administration: 23 years
Hometown: Coos Bay, Ore.
Family: 12-year-old daughter
Hobbies: Plays in a tennis league and likes to travel.
Future plans: He’s considering a trip to Italy and Germany, or Italy and Switzerland
His next move: “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet.”
Many thanks for reporting on Rick’s final thoughts. Exit interviews are a great way to get at reality. He makes a solid case. Legislators are intentionally making voting difficult. It is not yet the pole tax or the all white primary or the county unit system but it is moving in that direction. How are infirmed persons in nursing homes goin to vote?
You make some very good points, Mr. Bolster. Thanks for your kind words. Keep reading and let us know if there are stories or topics we should be covering.
Rick Barron is absolutely on target with his comments. The Republican-dominated legislature is intent on getting rid of home rule on many levels; just look at all the laws it passed this year mandating what local governments and school boards can and cannot do. It uses its power to draw state senate and house district lines and U.S.. Congressional districts to disadvantage voters of color and to divide cities, towns, and neighborhoods so they have to deal with multiple elected officials, making it harder to communicate their needs. It announces committee meetings at the last minute, so people cannot attend to testify about proposed legislation. All of this is designed to dilute the voice of the ordinary citizen by making it harder to participate in government.
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