After more than four years, the State Election Board ruled Feb. 10 on a 2016 Sandy Springs election complaint, saying Fulton County failed to properly notify city voters of a polling place change.

The board sent the case to the Attorney General’s office for possible legal action. Shawn Conroy, a spokesperson for the AG’s office, said it is unable to comment on active matters. He said when a file is referred the office conducts its own legal review to determine the most appropriate course of action.

Sandy Springs City Council District 3 candidates (from left) Chris Burnett, Brian Eufinger, Joe Houseman, Suzi Voyles and Larry Young at the May 4, 2016 forum at Heritage Hall on Blue Stone Road. (Photo Phil Mosier)

Conroy cited state law that says the attorney general can seek relief through an injunction, a temporary restraining order or civil penalties against any violator of election laws in Fulton County Superior Court. An order of compliance or to cease and desist from further violations could be issued by the court. If judgment is in favor of the State Election Board, the defendant would pay costs including attorneys’ fees.

The May 2016 special election for Sandy Springs’ District 3 City Council seat was marred by Fulton County’s failure to send out polling place notification cards, said Frances Watson, chief investigator for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. The city ran its own election in a separate polling place the same day as a county-run state primary election.

The city acknowledged running its own election with a single, separate polling place was confusing to voters. The council decided to move ahead with a special election on the same day as the state primary to fill a council seat vacated with the resignation of Graham McDonald in March 2016. But that didn’t leave enough time to meet the required 90-day notice to have the county run its election. Councilmember Chris Burnett won the District 3 election in a runoff election in June 2016.

The city sent notification to Fulton County in accordance with state law about the polling place, Watson said. The Fulton County Department of Registration and Elections is charged with notifying voters of polling place changes. Watson said a Fulton County elections officer reported that a clerical error set the date as 2017, so the notifications were never sent.

The investigation began with a complaint filed May 20, 2016, by the Secretary of State’s office itself, according to a case report provided by the office. By 2019 the case still hadn’t been scheduled before the State Election Board. The case was put on two meeting agendas in 2020 but was deferred both times until being heard on Feb. 10.

The Elections Board could have dismissed the case or issued a letter of instruction for Fulton County. A civil penalty of up to $5,000 per violation also could have been issued. The board chose to refer it to the Attorney General’s office.

It is common for State Election Board investigations to last years, as happened in the Sandy Springs case, a process that has drawn criticism as taking too long. State Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-DeKalb County), who is also an elections lawyer, previously said it was “insane” that cases like the one in Sandy Springs take years and that the General Assembly might need to consider legislative changes.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.