Fulton County’s elections board should not be suspended and replaced under a 2021 “election takeover” law, according to a recommendation from a bipartisan panel tasked with reviewing the county’s operations over the past 17 months.

Hundreds of voters wait in line at State Farm Arena in Atlanta during the first day of in-person early voting on Oct. 12, 2020.
[Credit: Stephen Fowler | GPB News]

In a 19-page report sent to the State Election Board Friday afternoon, the panel wrote that while there were still areas of improvement for elections in the state’s most populous county, progress in streamlining processes and training made a noticeable difference in recent elections.

“The Fulton County Board of Elections and Registration is engaged and helping to drive those improvements,” the report says. “Replacing the board would not be helpful and would in fact hinder the ongoing improvements to Fulton County elections.”

The panel, comprised of Gwinnett County elections board member Stephen Day, Catoosa County elections board chairman Ricky Kittle and Ryan Germany, outgoing general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, were appointed in August 2021 under the sweeping 98-page voting law passed that year in the wake of a narrow Democratic victory in Georgia and pervasive false and misleading claims of fraud.

According to the report, thousands of hours were spent reviewing all aspects of the county’s election process and noting improvements during elections conducted in 2021 and 2022 — and no evidence of “fraud, dishonesty or intentional misconduct” in regards to the 2020 presidential election.

“Prior staff that oversaw elections, voter registration, redistricting, and absentee ballots are no longer with the office, and new staff can bring new energy and renewed commitment,” the report reads. “Training, processes and procedures, and overall organization have all been improved as well, but those things need further improvement to ensure readiness and success in the 2024 election cycle.”

“The Board of Registration & Elections has operated for the last two years with a singular focus on the best possible experience for Fulton County voters,” Fulton elections board chair Cathy Woolard said in a statement. “The Performance Review Board’s report affirms what we already know – our staff work every day to serve Fulton County voters and deliver free and fair elections in compliance with the law.”

Fulton County is home to one in 10 of the state’s voters and many of its Black and Democratic voters and has also historically struggled with elections issues that have made national headlines. In the pandemic-stricken 2020 primary election, the county was one of many that suffered from having fewer polling places and election workers, coupled with unprecedented numbers of mail-in absentee ballots.

Later that year, Fulton saw a much smoother presidential election thanks in part to millions in extra funding, mobile early voting buses and a concerted push to encourage voters cast their ballots before Election Day.

But baseless attacks on the election system, false claims of fraud and failed lawsuits challenging the election results — and focused on Fulton and its election workers — paved the way for the creation of the election takeover provision that some viewed as targeted towards the county.

In July 2021, Republican members of Fulton County’s House and Senate delegation requested a performance review and investigation into then-elections director Richard Barron under the law, even though the actual entity being reviewed was the appointed five-member elections board which has the legal authority to serve as the elections superintendent.

Superintendents are tasked with certifying elections results, selecting polling locations and hearing voter eligibility challenges, while many counties have hired elections directors to oversee a department that actually conducts elections, processes voter registration applications and manages day-to-day election tasks.

This is the first and only use of the performance review panel since the law took effect, and the panel’s report also recommended changes to the review process, noting it would be “difficult to see how it is a sustainable process that can continue to positively influence election administration in Georgia without some reforms.”

“A positive, proactive, and periodic review process, appropriately funded, designed to support and assist all counties with election process improvements could be more effective than the performance review process in its current iteration,” the report says.

While the recommendations do not include the drastic step of removing the bipartisan board and replacing them with an interim figure, there are tangible things the county could do to improve its processes, like better overall organization, more contextualized poll worker training and reviewing polling place layouts, for example.

The review panel will present the report at the next State Election Board meeting on Feb. 7.

This story comes to Rough Draft Atlanta through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Stephen Fowler | GPB

Stephen Fowler is an award-winning reporter and photographer for GPB News covering state and local politics.