Georgia’s 2020 election results were confirmed by subsequent audits and recounts, although conspiracies about the state’s voting machines persist. Stephen Fowler/GPB
The State Election Board Tuesday rejected a state takeover of Fulton County elections following a lengthy performance review after a tumultuous 2020 presidential election brought some unwanted national attention to Georgia’s most populated county.
State board members cited improvements in Fulton election operations that included a shakeup in leadership in their reasoning behind unanimously opposing the state takeover. The vote falls in line with a review panel’s report in January that said replacing the county’s local election board would be detrimental to progress made in Fulton during the last couple of years.
Fulton’s elections have long been criticized for persistent long lines at voting precincts and for repeatedly lagging behind the state’s other 158 counties in reporting election results.
Republican legislators orchestrated an election law overhaul in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election that paved the way for state takeovers of problematic local election boards. Under the 2021 law, the State Election Board has final authority on determining whether local election officials should be temporarily suspended and replaced by a state-appointed administrator to run elections.
Fulton became the first county in Georgia to be placed under the performance review microscope in August 2021. An independent panel spent 17 months evaluating election operations in the Democratic stronghold.
On Tuesday, Cathy Woolard, the outgoing Fulton election board chairwoman, told members of the state board that ongoing improvements led to the county conducting successful elections since 2020.
“We feel like we’ve made significant progress over time since a performance review was appointed nearly two years ago in August 2021,” she said. “We’ve participated in multiple meetings, submitted tons of documents, facilitated many inspections and have been open and transparent about our plans and our performance.”
In the 2020 presidential election, many local election offices, including Fulton, faced staffing shortages due to the pandemic. And on election night, Fulton’s overnight counting of a record number of absentee ballots at State Farm Arena sparked wild conspiracy theories echoed by Republican President Donald Trump. Many of his allies point to videos of ballot processing at the arena as the reason Trump narrowly lost to Democratic nominee Joe Biden. A film by a conservative activist fueled debunked rumors that Fulton poll workers conjured up suitcases packed with improper ballots to help Biden, a claim emphatically denied by Georgia election officials.
The election review panel’s report did not find any merit to the claims of rampant voting fraud or intentional misconduct by Fulton election workers and leadership. However, the report echoed the criticisms of an independent election monitor who criticized the county’s 2020 general election operations as sloppy.
The review panel cited problems with managerial oversight, disorganization, mistakes in recounting ballots, and a number of other issues. It also noted strides made with training staff, streamlining absentee ballot tabulation and better chain of custody procedures for mail-in ballots.
State Election Board Chairman William Duffey Jr. said that while Fulton has made important changes in leadership, the county’s ability to resolve systemic problems and restore public confidence will be tested to the fullest extent in the 2024 presidential election.
“While I think it’s fair to say that because of the (2022 midterm) result there was less controversy and less complaints about it, when you have a close result like 2020, the circumstances and the ability to contend with those and reach the highest level of readiness and preparation is necessary,” he said.
Investigation into alleged misconduct during the 2020 election revealed that the numerous accusations made against the Fulton elections department and its staff were false, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said on Tuesday.
Investigations conducted by secretary of state’s office, GBI and FBI revealed “there was no evidence of any type of fraud as alleged.”
“We remain diligent and dedicated to looking into real claims of voter fraud,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “We are glad the State Election Board finally put this issue to rest. False claims and knowingly false allegations made against these election workers have done tremendous harm. Election workers deserve our praise for being on the front lines.”
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