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Move on Fulton Elections Board continues rear-view mirror drive

By Tom Baxter

It says a lot about the state of elections in Georgia that Republican legislators haven’t found anyone to chair the state Election Board yet — may not be close, in fact — but they’ve lost no time setting the stage for a taking over the Fulton County Elections Board.

On Friday, House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones and four other Republican representatives sent a letter to the state Election Board formally requesting a performance review of Fulton County election officials, following a similar letter from Republican senators earlier in the week. That sets in motion the process outlined in Georgia’s new election law which could ultimately lead to the county board being replaced by a state-appointed election supervisor.

Republicans are going to view this as completely justified by the past problems with Fulton County elections. Democrats are going to see it as an unprecedented intrusion and a bald-faced attempt to hijack the state’s biggest Democratic county. Believe one or the other, but you can count on one thing: this is going to be a rat’s nest.

Let’s start with who fired who. The law says that if a performance review shows election officials have failed in their duty, the county election board gets dismissed. The official Republicans have complained about is Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron. The Fulton Election Board fired Barron earlier this year, mainly because of problems with the 2020 primary elections, but the Fulton County Commission rejected their decision.

Here’s the rub. The law says the state board may suspend a local “superintendent,” but it isn’t clear that refers to Barron, who is hired staff for the county. In the context of most other Georgia counties, the superintendent of Fulton County’s elections is the election board. So is the state going to suspend a local board which fired the employee it’s concerned about? Come to think of it, if the Fulton County Commission had the legal right to reject Barron’s firing, what in the new law supercedes that right?

The election law is very specific about when a preliminary hearing is to be held once a request is. It provides for a performance review board, to be composed of one person from the secretary of state’s office and two local election officials from other counties. But all it says about how the charges are to be dealt with is that the State Election Board “shall promulgate rules and regulations” for conducting the investigation and preliminary hearing. They need to hurry, because the clock has been started on the review process.

It would be wonderful if this process could be shaped by someone who fits the description in the new law of the State Election Board chairman: a totally neutral person who hasn’t run for office or contributed money in years, yet still is prominent enough to be considered for such an important position. But the framers of the law have yet to find this mythical beast, so the process seems to be tumbling forward without much thought of creating a lasting framework.

Before the new law, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger chaired the State Election Board, but he was dumped and made a non-voting member in retaliation for refusing to help Donald Trump overturn the election in Georgia. He’s supporting the legislators’ moves on Fulton County in an effort to win back over Republican voters. Such are the ironies of a process looking more backward than forward.

Since last year’s election, Mary Carole Cooney has resigned as chairwoman of the Fulton Election Board due to illness and former Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan has taken leadership of the board. Is the state going to dismiss Wan, over problems that happened before he went on the board?

It isn’t, because the new law is so slushy that it’s unlikely anybody could be removed from office very quickly. The law says that violations of the law or other disqualifying practices must have occurred over two election cycles, which will be hard to prove about a local board that’s not the same as it was last year.

We haven’t even gotten to the various legal challenges that could slow the process down. In the meantime, organizations on both sides of the issue will raise money off the controversy with grinding efficiency.

The State Election Board could do everybody a favor, and set a high bar, by returning a finding that there are insufficient grounds for continuing the investigation past the preliminary stage. The new law says it can.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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