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Georgia’s biggest county can’t find a top elections official

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/7/2022 Matthew Brown
Fulton County election workers sort through mail-in ballots at the Atlanta Hawks practice gym in 2020. © Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post Fulton County election workers sort through mail-in ballots at the Atlanta Hawks practice gym in 2020.

ATLANTA — It is in many ways an ideal job for a public servant with a passion for democracy — the chance to facilitate voting in Georgia’s most populous county, the electoral center of one of the most important political battlegrounds in the nation.

Yet for 10 months, local leaders have been unable to hire a permanent director to run the Department of Registration and Elections in Fulton County, home to Atlanta.

The previous director resigned in November and left the position in April, after pressure from local lawmakers and the turmoil of the 2020 election, when county staff endured death threats, baseless conspiracy theories, high-stakes audits and harassment from former president Donald Trump and his allies.

Now, with Georgia in another highly charged campaign season and poised to play a pivotal role in the next presidential election, many here think the toxic swirl of state politics, national scrutiny, ongoing harassment and long-standing logistical issues has turned off potentially strong candidates and cast a shadow over the office itself.

The staff has worked through the uncertainty under an interim director, but the county has been slow to implement changes mandated by a sweeping new election law; update its voting equipment; finalize plans with key contractors; and recruit new polling sites and workers for the midterm election that’s two months away. There are worries that this could lead to more mistakes, the sort that can lead to accusations of fraud.

“This is a plum job in the country; Fulton County is a big deal. We are one of the top counties in the country and from an election point of view,” said Robb Pitts, chair of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, which governs the municipality. “You’d have to have had your head in the sand not to know what Fulton County, Georgia, represents.”

Across the country over the past two years, waves of elections officials have quit because of unprecedented harassment and pressure to conduct elections flawlessly with limited resources. The time-intensive jobs, which usually pay less than comparable executive positions in the private sector, also are unattractive to many workers in a tight labor market, elections experts say. (The previous Fulton County director was paid $178,000.)

With all of these challenges, some communities are struggling to hire qualified replacements. And the problem is expected to worsen.

“We saw a big round of retirements after 2020, but some folks stuck around because they understood that they needed to get their office through the midterms,” said Rachel Orey, associate director of elections at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank. “But we’re expecting that after this election this fall wraps up is going to be another large wave of retirements or people leaving their positions as election officials.”

Orey added that the “growing amount of pressure on elected officials to do their job perfectly in a national spotlight” is compounded when “the risk is that if they do make a mistake, they could face legal action, which is not the kind of culture that we need to cultivate for running elections.”

What happened when a Georgia elections office was targeted for takeover by those who claim the 2020 election was a fraud

Fulton County forms the core of the Atlanta metropolitan area, one of the fastest-growing and diversifying regions in the country. The county is 43 percent Black, 39 percent White, 9 percent Asian and 8 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2020 Census. The explosive population growth in the area has led to increased economic development and a cultural boom alongside growing pains on issues including elections administration.

The county elections board settled on a finalist in March, but he withdrew from the application process. Leaders plan to resume interviews with more candidates in mid-September, making it unlikely that a permanent director will be in place before the midterm elections.

Fulton’s elections have been criticized by state lawmakers for decades as poorly run. An independent monitor assigned to observe county election workers during the 2020 election described the process as badly managed, sloppy and chaotic, although he emphasized that he saw no evidence of fraud. Many local leaders consider the attacks on the county — which is racially diverse with a heavily Democratic voting base — as prejudicial saber-rattling in a Southern state mostly run by Republicans.

“You have to have a thick skin, because you’re going to get attacked,” said Richard Barron, the former elections chief. “You’re going to have to deal with the fact that you’re going to have a hostile secretary of state. You’re going to have a hostile board of commissioners, plus the legislature. So the person that takes that job is going to have to be able to deal with that stress and pressure.”

Hanging over the search for Barron’s replacement is also a more than year-long review by the state elections board that could result in the state seizing control of the county elections board.

This investigation was made possible by Georgia’s Election Integrity Act of 2021, which Republicans argue is necessary to crack down on alleged voter fraud. Democrats and voting rights advocates say the law is rooted in Georgia’s history of voter disenfranchisement and is an outgrowth of efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election results in the state, which Joe Biden won by more than 11,000 votes.

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If fully executed, a state takeover would dissolve the county elections board and replace it with a single person appointed by the state elections board. The elections director, a municipal worker hired by the county, would not be replaced, but all elections staffing and policy would then be at the discretion of the state-appointed administrator.

The general counsel for the secretary of state’s office said last week the performance review would not end before the general election, delaying the potential of a county elections board takeover but prolonging the uncertainty that comes with the investigation.

Cathy Woolard, chair of the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections, said the board has been “told repeatedly there isn’t an interest in taking us over, but we can’t seem to understand when the investigation will conclude.”

“It’s an extension that never seems to end,” Woolard said. “It’s problematic for us because, obviously, anyone taking an executive position that could see new management would be concerned about such a thing.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) defended the need for the review and dismissed Fulton’s recruitment troubles, arguing that the county “has had well-documented issues running their elections for at least two decades.”

“The idea that a performance review that began last year is causing their issues is ridiculous,” Raffensperger said in a statement.

At minimum, a state takeover would require two recommendations for intervention and several back-and-forth hearings between the state elections board, local leaders and the secretary of state before a formal ruling would be issued. That process has yet to start because of the slow pace of the initial investigation. So far, the review panel has met with Fulton staffers and observed election administration in the county, according to Pitts and Woolard.

The state’s official report also can recommend changes to Fulton’s elections without ordering a full takeover.

The convoluted process worries voting rights experts who are concerned about the partisan administration of elections. Liz Avore, vice president of law and policy at the Voting Rights Lab, an advocacy group that studies election law, said that while it’s “totally fine” for a state elections board to conduct a review, it’s alarming that the board members — a majority of whom are now appointed by partisan legislators because of the 2021 election law — have the power “to remove and replace the local election official with a person of their choosing.”

Stickers at a polling place in Atlanta on Nov. 3, 2020. © Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg News Stickers at a polling place in Atlanta on Nov. 3, 2020.

Much of the criticism Fulton’s previous elections chief received began after the 2020 election primary when long lines, broken and inoperable voting machines and a lack of poll workers led to many of the county’s voters waiting past midnight to cast ballots. The chaos came after months of warnings from voting rights advocates that the coronavirus pandemic could break an already strained election system that has long been underfunded by state and local leaders.

“The former director just met a perfect storm in the primary in 2020,” said Lee Morris, a Republican member of Fulton’s board of commissioners. “With covid and people bailing on him at the last minute, poll workers deciding the weekend before the election not to come in, precinct places saying, ‘No, we don’t want covid in our buildings,’ he got a lot of blame that he probably didn’t deserve.”

On election night, the national spotlight again turned to Fulton County as vote counting was stalled by a crashed server and a burst water pipe.

Barron oversaw Fulton’s hand recount of the 2020 election while conspiracy theories spread, leading to threats against his staff. The pressure escalated as Georgia’s two Senate races went to runoffs that decided the balance of power in Congress.

Raphael Warnock’s campaign for the moral high ground

“The threats? I could have dealt with those,” Barron said. “But I was tired of trying to fight for the job every day,” he said, asserting that Republican officials on the county commission and in the state legislature made the role inhospitable.

Video selectively edited by Trump campaign attorneys and Rudy Giuliani was presented before the Georgia legislature twice in December 2020, purporting to show voter fraud and prompting a deluge of misinformation despite the secretary of state’s office debunking the claims.

Amid the tension, Fulton poll workers and election officials were bombarded with death threats from those who denied the results of the 2020 election and harassment from politicians. Fulton elections workers testified to the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol about Trump’s personal attacks on them.

Ruby Freeman wipes a tear as her daughter, former Georgia election worker Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss, testifies on Tuesday. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Ruby Freeman wipes a tear as her daughter, former Georgia election worker Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss, testifies on Tuesday.

“My life is upside down. … I don’t want anyone knowing my name. I don’t want to go anywhere with my mom because she might yell my name out in the grocery aisle or something,” former Fulton elections worker Shaye Moss testified in June.

Her mother, Ruby Freeman, testified that federal agents warned her she had to leave her home for her safety after an avalanche of threats.

“I’ve lost my sense of security, all because a group of people, starting with [Trump] and his ally Rudy Giuliani, decided to scapegoat me and my daughter Shaye to push their own lies about how the presidential election was stolen,” Freeman said before lawmakers.

Election workers describe ‘hateful’ threats after Trump’s false claims

Barron said he received more than 150 hateful and threatening messages after the election. One Fulton poll worker went into hiding after Trump falsely accused him in a viral video of throwing away ballots; state officials quickly debunked the claim.

“He is currently in hiding,” Barron said at a November 2020 news conference. “Simply for wanting to be an election worker.”

Yet, Republicans continued to focus their attention on Fulton County. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R) proposed that the state’s Bureau of Investigation launch a criminal probe into potential fraud and irregularities in Fulton. Burt Jones, a Republican state senator now running for lieutenant governor, called for legislative hearings to address the “rampant mismanagement” of Fulton’s elections. In July 2021, Raffensperger called for Barron and Fulton’s registration chief, Ralph Jones, to be fired.

The next month, Jones resigned, and the state elections board appointed a three-person review panel that includes a Democrat, a Republican and the general counsel for the secretary of state’s office. None of them responded to multiple requests for comment.

In November, Barron announced that he would leave his post at the end of the year, prompting the Fulton elections board to launch a national search for his replacement. Finalists included candidates from across the country and elections workers from neighboring counties.

The Fulton elections board appointed an interim director, Nadine Williams, to oversee the county’s elections until a replacement was found. Williams oversaw the county’s primary in May and is presiding over preparations for the general election. Williams said that county workers haven’t recently received death threats but that the office will be “very aggressive in reporting people” who threaten poll workers and other officials.

“We make mistakes just like any other county. There is no perfect election. … When you’re supervising 3,000 people, there’s going to be some type of human error,” Williams said. “We have done nothing fraudulent. So I’m not worried about that at all.”

Williams, who has worked in the county government for more than 20 years, is a contender for the full-time role, according to county officials.

In March, the board’s search panel settled on hiring Derek Bowens, the elections director in North Carolina’s Durham County. Bowens said he learned from a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was the sole finalist. A day later, he withdrew from the application process.

Bowens said he was aware of the complex situation in Fulton and was undeterred by potential threats but cited the nomination process itself and a private family matter for his decision.

In the six months since then, the county hasn’t made a hire. County leaders continue to blame the state’s investigation.

“I’d call it a witch hunt. They have not found anything; they are not going to find anything,” said Pitts, chair of the county board of commissioners. “I’ve been involved in a lot of elections. There’s no perfect election. There can always be mechanical failure or human failure. But as far as some orchestrated attempt to rig the elections here in Fulton County? Didn’t happen.”

Teresa Crawford, a Democrat on the Fulton elections board, said she also is frustrated.

“Who’s going to move here and move their family and then wait until the state says, ‘Oh, we’re taking you over,’ ” Crawford said. “That’s a hindrance for a job search, for sure.”

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