Georgia board to review Fulton elections, takeover possible

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FILE – In this Nov. 25, 2020 file photo, Fulton County Georgia election chief Rick Barron talks to reporters as workers scan ballots during a presidential recount in Atlanta. The Georgia State Board of Elections plans to appoint a review panel this week as part of a process that could lead to a takeover of elections in the state’s most populous county under a provision in the state’s sweeping new election law. Republican lawmakers cited the new law when they asked the state board last month to appoint the performance review board to investigate Fulton County’s handling of elections. The board plans to appoint the panel during its meeting Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s State Election Board on Wednesday took a step toward a possible eventual takeover of elections in the state’s most populous county under a process outlined in the state’s sweeping new voting law that critics argue could open elections up to political interference.

The board voted unanimously Wednesday to approve a bipartisan, three-person review panel to examine Fulton County, a Democratic bastion that includes most of the city of Atlanta. The county has long been the target of Republican lawmakers’ ire. Their attacks only increased after former President Donald Trump and his allies made unfounded claims that fraud in the county contributed to his narrow loss in the state. An independent monitor found no evidence of fraud or impropriety.

GOP lawmakers last month asked the state board to appoint the performance review panel to investigate Fulton’s handling of elections, initiating the process that could allow the Republican-controlled state board to replace the county’s board of registration and elections with an administrator it chooses.

The Republican lawmakers who asked for the review said they want to ensure that election officials in the county, which is home to about 11% of the state’s electorate, have been following state voting laws and regulations. Democrats and voting rights activists have said the new takeover provision could allow political interference in local elections.

Under the new law, lawmakers who represent a given county may request a review of local election officials. In Fulton County, that’s the county board of registration and elections. The review board is to be composed of “three competent persons,” including an employee of the elections division of the secretary of state’s office and two “local election officials.”

The review panel approved by the state board includes: Stephen Day, a Democratic appointee to the Gwinnett County election board; Ricky Kittle, a Republican appointee to the Catoosa County election board; and Ryan Germany, general counsel for the secretary of state’s office.

The review board is tasked with conducting a complete and thorough investigation into the competency in the maintenance and operation of election equipment, the administration and oversight of registration and elections and compliance with state law and regulations. Then the board is to issue a report with evaluations and recommendations.

The investigation is to be followed by a preliminary hearing within 90 days of the receipt of the original request. During that preliminary hearing, the State Election Board is to decide whether the matter should be dismissed or whether it should proceed to a full hearing.

The state board could suspend the county board if it finds evidence county officials violated state election law or rules three times since 2018 and have not fixed violations. It could also remove the county board if it finds that during at least two elections over two years the board has shown “nonfeasance, malfeasance, or gross negligence.”

The State Election Board, currently with a 3-1 Republican majority, would appoint a temporary administrator to run Fulton County elections if it finds wrongdoing. The county board could seek reinstatement. If the state board refuses, its administrator would remain in place for at least nine months. The administrator would have the authority to make any personnel changes related to running elections, including replacing the director of elections and all poll officers.

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