The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Panel: Improve oversight but don’t take over

Officials said future reviews should be handled differentl­y.

- By Mark Niesse

If there’s ever MACON — another elections takeover attempt in Georgia, it should be run better than the prolonged and unfunded investigat­ion that targeted Fulton County, state officials said Tuesday.

A performanc­e review panel told the State Election Board that after a year-anda-half evaluation, it opposes a state takeover of Fulton’s elections because the county has made improvemen­ts since the 2020 vote.

But election officials said future reviews should be handled differentl­y from the Fulton inquiry, which was started by Republican state legislator­s and focused on the county that’s home to Georgia’s largest number of Democratic Party voters.

“I don’t want the board to be perceived as the sheriff that runs into a county because we’ve found problems,” State Election Board Chairman Bill Duffey said. “What can we do to put into place a mechanism to make that process and resolution uniform across all counties?”

The board plans to vote at its next meeting on the panel’s recommenda­tion against replacing Fulton’s elections board, which was announced in a report last month.

The Fulton review relied on three election officials appointed to assess the county’s operations after the Republican majority in the Georgia General Assembly created the evaluation process as part of the state’s election law passed in response to the 2020 election.

Fulton is the only county in the state that has been subjected to such a review, which can be launched by legislator­s from an area. No other lawmakers have sought state interventi­on in their counties, including in Coffee County, where computer analysts aided Republican supporters of then-president Donald Trump and copied election software in January 2021.

“It’s difficult to see how this process is sustainabl­e and can continue to positively influence election administra­tion in Georgia without some reforms,” said Stephen Day, a member of the performanc­e review panel and a Democrat on the Gwinnett County elections board. “It is better to be a partner than an adversary, better to improve systems before dysfunctio­n, rather than trying to fix them after the fact.”

Day suggested the General Assembly provide funding for four or five people who could assess counties across the state year-round.

The review panel’s members said they were only able to conduct a thorough investigat­ion with the help of the Carter Center, which contribute­d 64 independen­t, nonpartisa­n election observers.

“How would I feel if someone came into my county?” asked Rickey Kittle, chairman for the Catoosa County elections board and a Republican performanc­e review panel member. “That’s something we have to think about before we ever do this again, to see if there’s a better way.”

The panel’s report said there were no indication­s of fraud or dishonesty in the 2020 election results in Fulton County, and it cited improvemen­ts in training, processes and procedures since then. Three vote counts showed that Democrat Joe Biden defeated Republican Donald Trump by about 12,000 votes in Georgia.

But the review panel recounted problems in the 2020 primary and general election, including long lines amid the COVID-19 pandemic and process errors during an audit that recounted all paper ballots by hand.

The report also confirmed an allegation that almost 200 ballots were counted twice during the first vote count of the presidenti­al election, as first reported by The Atlanta Journal-constituti­on in July 2021.

“We wish there was a way to do this type of evaluation on a more positive, proactive, periodic process as opposed to coming in when there’s a problem,” said Ryan Germany, a member of the performanc­e review panel and former attorney for Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensper­ger. “Let’s go through each of our counties and really figure out what can be improved.”

Any changes to election takeovers would require new laws or funding from the General Assembly.

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