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Part of Republican trend, Georgia election board moves toward Fulton County takeover

Fulton County was a target for false election fraud claims by former President Donald Trump.
Fulton County Georgia elections workers process absentee ballots for the Senate runoff election in Atlanta on Jan. 5, 2021.
Fulton County Georgia elections workers process absentee ballots for the Senate runoff election in Atlanta on Jan. 5, 2021.Ben Gray / AP file

Georgia's Republican-controlled State Election Board took a step Wednesday toward a possible takeover of elections in Fulton County, the latest example of Republican efforts to exert control over the administration of elections at the most local of levels.

Republicans across the country have argued they need to restore faith in the election process after former President Donald Trump tried to overturn his defeat by insisting without evidence that the race was stolen through rampant fraud.

But voting rights advocates fear the measures being taken are being pushed to correct nonexistent fraud and will instead undermine the process by giving partisan legislators undue influence and control.

In Georgia, the board took aim at Fulton County, which delivered key wins for the Democratic party during the 2020 election cycle and has long been a target of Republican lawmakers. An independent monitor found no evidence of fraud or impropriety, but Republican lawmakers in the state nonetheless requested another review of the county's election processes last month.

And on Wednesday morning, the board voted to appoint three people to conduct a performance review of Fulton County. Members include Republican Ricky Kittle, chairman of the Catoosa County elections board; Democrat Stephen Day, a member of the Gwinnett County elections board; and Ryan Germany, general counsel for Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

They'll conduct an investigation of equipment, registration, processes, and compliance with state law. The overall process — from lawmakers' initial request to a complete takeover — could take nearly a year, Georgia Public Broadcasting reported.

Georgia isn't alone in empowering state officials to control local elections. Arkansas passed a similar law. Other states have sought to micromanage elections by dictating everything from where polling places are to how and when voters can request absentee ballots.

"That’s the big concern — that it’s a self-fulfilling process that it will actually make the elections in Fulton County less trustworthy and less for the service of the voters," said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, of the county takeover.

Advocates warn that partisan players in election administrator roles could undermine future contests.

"The sort of worst case scenario which you’ve seen some press reports discuss is that the state legislature could insert someone to run Fulton's elections who would decline to certify the election results at all, who would take Fulton county’s ballots out of the count," said Jessica Marsden, an attorney at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan advocacy group that was founded by former Obama administration lawyers.

"The scenario that I think is a little more likely is that legislature will use these new tools that they’ve given themselves to delay the counting process, to cast doubt on the counting procedures."

Protect Democracy, along with two other similar advocacy groups who have lobbied against Republicans' election oversight efforts, States United Democracy Center and Law Forward, said there are at least 216 bills that “politicize, criminalize, or interfere” with election administration under consideration this year. Of those, 24 have passed and others remain under consideration, the groups said.

“These laws are setting up a path to an electoral crisis,” Marsden said. “I think that path runs through false accusations of fraud or errors in the election process.”

States including Georgia have barred election officials from accepting outside funding, after many — including in Fulton County — sought grant money to help fund unexpected election administration expenses last year, like PPE to protect election workers and security to keep workers safe when Trump supporters threatened them.

New election laws in Kansas will bar the governor, secretary of state, and courts from changing election policies without input from lawmakers — even in emergencies, according to Protect Democracy's analysis.

Several state legislators have also mounted their own investigations into county-level 2020 election results. Arizona's state Senate hired third-party auditors this year to investigate more than 2 million ballots in Maricopa County in a controversial review that's been broadly condemned by election experts.

In Georgia, there's no question that Fulton County elections have had issues: In one of the first pandemic elections in June 2020, voters waited for hours to cast a ballot.

But the county tried to avoid the problems in November, using $10 million in grant money to hire staff and deploy additional ballot drop boxes, amongst other things. Officials saw record-level turnout and short lines — a marked improvement from the past.

Yet the county — and its staff — remain the subject of attacks.

One of the first requests submitted by Georgia lawmakers to review Fulton County named Richard Barron, the elections director, and requested a review be done of his work. But Barron is an employee of the Registration and Elections Board, which is who the review will target.

The county's registration chief, Ralph Jones, resigned earlier this week. Barron, Jones, and many Fulton County staffers have reported being relentlessly harassed and threatened by members of the public over their work in the county's elections.

"Blaming election officials, the partisan reviews, the criminalization of election official conduct, that they’re to be viewed with suspicion, the efforts to take over election offices — all of it starts to turn election officials into just another partisan actor, another team player — which is not what they should be," Norden, the election law advocate, said.

Barron said in an interview that the attacks have been "disappointing."

Barron said he had previously spoken with one of the Republican lawmakers who requested the review of his county about election reform. He was hopeful that it would result in them working together.

“He said he’d be willing to work on legislation to make things more efficient. I talked to him several times on election night and afterwards I think we exchanged some emails when we set up the appointment,” Barron recalled. “I would say it was enthusiasm.”

Barron declined to name the senator to NBC News, but Fulton County state Sen. John Albers confirmed he spoke with Barron about meeting.

But after Trump had begun alleging widespread improprieties and fraud in Georgia and particularly Fulton County, Albers emailed Barron suggesting they reschedule.

The pair hasn’t spoken since.