The Georgia State Electoral Committee plans to appoint a review body this week as part of a process that could result in the election of the most populous district in the state under a provision of the state’s comprehensive new electoral law.
Republican lawmakers cited the new bill when they asked the State Board last month to appoint the Performance Review Board to examine Fulton County’s handling of elections. The board plans to appoint the panel at its Wednesday meeting.
The heavily Democratic district covers most of the city of Atlanta and is home to approximately 11% of the state’s active registered voters. Former President Donald Trump was fixated on the county after his narrow loss last year in Georgia, claiming unsubstantiated fraud allegations as evidence that his election was stolen.
GOP lawmakers requesting the review say they are concerned about the negligence in managing the district elections and want a review committee to assess whether local officials have been complying with state voting laws and regulations.
Democrats and suffrage activists said the new takeover provision in state law leaves the door open to political interference in the electoral process and could allow for votes to be suppressed. They said the county had a successful election last year and the review is unnecessary.
Under the new law, lawmakers representing a particular district can request a review of the local electoral officers defined by the law as electoral superintendents. In Fulton County, this is the county registration and electoral committee.
After receiving such an application, the state election committee must appoint an examination committee within 30 days. The examination board should be composed of “three competent persons”, including an employee of the electoral department of the State Secretariat and two “local electoral officers”.
The Board of Examiners has the task of conducting a full and thorough examination of the competence in the maintenance and operation of voting machines, the administration and supervision of registration and elections, as well as compliance with state laws and regulations. Then the board should issue a report with evaluations and recommendations.
The investigation is to be followed by a preliminary hearing within 90 days of receipt of the original request. In this preliminary hearing, the state electoral committee decides whether to dismiss the matter or move on to a full hearing.
The state board could suspend the district board if it finds that district officials have violated the law or the rules of state elections three times since 2018 and have not remedied any violations. It could also dismiss the district board if it finds that the board has shown “non-compliance, administrative offense or gross negligence” in at least two elections over two years.
The State Election Board, currently with a 3-1 Republican majority, would appoint an interim administrator to run the Fulton County elections if it found wrongdoing. The district board could apply for reinstatement. If the state board declines, its administrator remains in office for at least nine months. The administrator would be empowered to make any personnel changes related to the conduct of elections, including the replacement of the election officer and any election officers.
The state board is also tasked with establishing rules for the process. These rules are due to be proposed at Wednesday’s meeting and will then be subject to public comment before they can be adopted.
Fulton County has a long history of electoral problems and was a popular boxing bag for Republicans. The county primaries last year were overshadowed by problems, including long lines and postal ballot papers that were requested and never received.
County officials admitted the problems but said many of the most serious problems were related to the coronavirus pandemic. They spent millions of dollars and made changes ahead of the November general election to ensure a smoother performance. An independent observer was also appointed as part of an approval order from the district and the state election committee.
That monitor, Carter Jones, watched the election process in Fulton County from October through January. He wrote that he had witnessed “sloppy processes” and “systemic disorganization” but did not see any “illegality, fraud or willful misconduct”. He concluded that major changes and management restructuring were required.
While Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has vigorously defended the integrity of the state’s election results, he has often criticized Fulton County and repeatedly called for the dismissal of District Election Director Rick Barron and Registrar Ralph Jones.
Barron survived the district electoral committee’s attempt earlier this year to fire him after the district committee rejected the electoral committee’s recommendation. In a letter dated July 16, Ralph Jones announced his resignation as Head of Registration effective August 6.