A newly passed bill that gives Georgia’s top law enforcement agency unfettered power to pursue any allegations of election fraud sets a troubling precedent for future elections, some election administration officials contend.
Before Senate Bill 441 passed on April 4, in the last hours of the state legislative session, it was up to either the state Attorney General or Secretary of State’s office to call in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into allegations of election fraud.
But SB 441, which awaits Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, would give the GBI the power to initiate investigations into any allegations that cast doubt on an election’s outcome, going as far as seizing ballots or election machines and giving the agency subpoena power. The state’s top police agency would work with the Secretary of State’s office on cases that are already open, according to the bill.
Concerned election officials view the transfer of authority from the secretary of state to the GBI as a political weapon that potentially could lead to abuses of power and the possibility of elections being overturned.
“We’re going down a dangerous road,” Milton Kidd, the elections director for Douglas County, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “We’re in a politically divisive climate right now, with individuals making false allegations without having to offer up any supporting documentation. Now you’ve pulled law enforcement agencies into it.”
“You’re essentially politicizing the GBI,” Fulton County’s elections director, Rick Barron told Atlanta Civic Circle in a wide-ranging interview just before his April 1 departure. “The way elections operate in Georgia is already adversarial. The State Election Board is set up to be adversarial against the counties. And now, this is going to make it worse.“
“You’ve got a Republican governor and a Republic State Election Board–and you’ve got law enforcement officers who are now political extensions of the Republican party,” Barron explained, which could lead to abuses if a charge of election fraud occurs in a predominantly Democratic county like Fulton, which is also Georgia’s largest county.
But the secretary of state’s office downplayed the impending change. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “welcomes the new GBI rule saying it creates a shared jurisdiction between the two agencies,” a Raffensperger spokesman told Atlanta Civic Circle.
“Our agents will do what they are assigned to do,” a GBI spokeswoman told Atlanta Civic Circle in a statement. “The GBI is in the process of reviewing SB 441 and working on a plan that includes implementing the changes from this bill that gives our agency the authority to investigate violations involving elections.”
The Senate Ethics Committee cut the controversial proviso empowering the GBI to police elections, instead of the secretary of state, from an earlier elections bill, House Bill 1464, but it resurfaced on the last day of the session, April 4, in a last-minute legislative sleight of hand. It reappeared tucked inside SB 441, which initially had nothing to do with elections, and the bill passed in the waning hours of Sine Die.
The new proviso’s critics say it would make it harder for local election offices to recruit and keep poll workers, especially when they are still adjusting to the procedural changes from last year’s sweeping election overhaul law, SB 202.
Called the Election Integrity Act, SB 202 already authorizes state lawmakers to take over county elections offices they deem to be unfit. Empowered by the new law, the State Elections Board initiated an investigation into the Fulton elections office eight months ago, in August, but still has not announced whether it will be taking over the office or not.
Stressed poll workers have already been departing in droves the last two years, dealing first with the COVID-19 pandemic and then harassment from voters and politicians who claim the 2020 Presidential election was stolen.
But some election officials are taking a wait-and-see approach. “I’m not concerned about somebody else having the ability to investigate us,” Joseph Kirk, the elections supervisor for Bartow County, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
“As long as we’re doing our jobs properly, we should be okay,” he said, noting that no poll workers or voters have complained to his office about the new legislation. “Until I see something, I’m not going to borrow trouble and be concerned about it.”