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.
The board voted unanimously Wednesday to approve a bipartisan, three-person review panel to investigate the handling of elections in Fulton County, a Democrat bastion that includes most of the city of Atlanta.
The county has long been a target for Republicans. Their attacks increased after former President Donald Trump alleged fraud in the county in the past presidential election. An independent monitor appointed by the State Election Board found no evidence of fraud or malfeasance.
GOP lawmakers last month asked the state board to appoint the performance review panel, 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.
Fulton County accounts for about 11% of the state's electorate and President Joe Biden won nearly 73% of votes cast there in the November election. The county is about 45.5% white, 44.5% Black, and about 7.6% people of Asian descent, according to U.S. Census data.
The members of the review panel approved by the state board are: Stephen Day, a Democrat 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.
Before voting to approve the review panel, Sara Tindall Ghazal, the lone Democrat on the state board, noted the law required the board to appoint a panel after receiving the lawmakers' request. She also said she expects the board will be under "tremendous political pressure on both sides to come to preordained conclusions."
"The narrative driving this pressure has been influenced by disinformation surrounding the November 2020 election, but the fact remains that Fulton County voters have reported numerous problems for far longer than November 2020, particularly surrounding registration and absentee ballots," Ghazal said.
She urged the county to view this as "an opportunity to have fresh eyes on their systems and procedures and identify areas of improvement."
With a Democrat from the Atlanta area and a Republican from a more rural part of the state, as well as a lawyer from the secretary of state's office, the review panel has been "carefully balanced to reflect all interests so that the accusations that we heard in the press that this is just a Republican hatchet job against Fulton County is not reflected by this slate of candidates," said Matt Mashburn, a Republican member of the State Election Board.
Mashburn said it would be nice if the report the panel produces not only identifies problems but also reflects solutions that have already been identified.
"I encourage Fulton to keep trying to improve and not just throw up their hands and say it's all in the hands of the board now," he said.
The Republican lawmakers who asked for the review said they want to ensure election officials in the county 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.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has vigorously defended the integrity of the 2020 election in the state, but has long criticized election operations in Fulton County. He did not participate in the vote on the panel because the state's new election law removed him as chair of the State Election Board and made him a non-voting member.
Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts said the effort to take over the county's elections is driven by allegations of fraud pushed by Trump and his supporters.
"This is the result of a cynical ploy to undermine faith in our elections process and democracy itself – it is shameful partisan politics at its very worst," Pitts said Wednesday after the panel was appointed.
The new law allows lawmakers who represent a given county to request a review of local election officials. 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 board must issue a report after conducting a thorough investigation into the competency in the maintenance and operation of election equipment, the administration of registration and elections, as well as compliance with state law.
The state board could eventually 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, 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 removes the county board. 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.
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