The Georgia State Board of Elections plans to appoint a review panel this week as part of a process that could lead to a takeover of elections in the state’s most populous county. November 25,2020.
( Ben Gray
Melissa Harris-Perry: Head up the East Coast of the United States to the state of Georgia. They're in Georgia in the north-central region of the state you'll find Fulton County. Home to the City of Atlanta and more than 1 million residents Fulton is the most populous county in Georgia. It's also the most racially diverse 44% of the county is Black, 7% is Latino and nearly 8% is Asian American. In the 2020 presidential election, 72.6% of voters cast their ballot for President Joe Biden. In short, Fulton is the fulcrum that flipped the Peach State sending 16 electoral college votes and two US senators into the democratic column. Republican lawmakers in Georgia are not amused.
In March, they pass a sweeping new elections law and the law provides a pathway for the Georgia State Board of Elections to review and possibly suspend a local election and to install a temporary administrator to oversee election administration. This week, the process of a state takeover of Fulton County elections began. Here with me, Stephen Fowler, political reporter with the Georgia Public Broadcasting. Thanks for joining us, Stephen.
Stephen Fowler: Always a pleasure.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What are Republican lawmakers saying about why this review is necessary in Fulton?
Stephen Fowler: Well, it's important to note that Fulton County is Georgia's most populous county by a pretty wide margin, and with that, over history, there have been a number of problems with elections. For decades, there have been issues with voting machines, and people not getting ballots they requested, and long lines at the polls and during the 2020, June primary, it was ground zero for this disastrous primary where you had too few polling places, too few poll workers, too few machines, and just hours-long lines, predominantly in Black communities in Fulton County.
You have people that requested absentee ballots and never got them. All around there is precedents for Fulton County needing a little bit of extra review with how their elections are conducted but they say the 2020 presidential election is something that also needs reviewing and Republican lawmakers want to question that but that's not necessarily the same as Fulton's history.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. This is an odd almost we were talking about the state of Georgia flipping, it's almost like it's flipped in a weird way again. It's an inverse, where the kinds of problems you're talking about, we've heard from activist voting rights activists we've heard from Democratic lawmakers for years but then in 2020, it did seem that there was more accountability. I remember watching live stream Fulton for days and days on end. Is this just about whatever side is losing is mad, or is there something real going on here?
Stephen Fowler: Well, it's really difficult to say. It's a combination of both. There are things that needed to be changed with Fulton County's elections, which they did. From June to November, they added more polling places, they add tens of millions of dollars more in funding, they pushed people to vote early and vote absentee so that there were no lines on election days. They trained a ton of new volunteer poll workers to handle it all but even then there were still some problems with absentee ballot counting and things were delayed after the election was over because some things were scanned twice that didn't need to be, some things weren't scanned, that needed to be.
There were just some missteps in the process that needed to be fixed. It does come on the heels of Georgia's historic election flip and Fulton County is the county that has the most voters in it. It's very easy to draw that line between Republicans losing in Georgia and Republicans losing the White House. What's happening here is this takeover review tool, whatever you want to call it, is the surgical precision of a hammer instead of something more precise targeting the actual problems.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What will this performance review entail?
Stephen Fowler: This performance review is going to look at how the local elections board handles things. Now, it's a little bit confusing, because when we typically think of elections, we think of a supervisor, one person in charge of things that trains people, that goes out and says, "This is how many votes we have." This law actually deals with the local elections board, which in Fulton County is bipartisan. There are five appointed members picked by the political parties and the county government and that board is tasked with things like setting polling places, hearing challenges to people's voter registrations, and signing off on the results at the end of the day that, this is what happened in the election.
There's a three-person panel that is going to be reviewing virtually every aspect of Fulton County's elections and how this board did its job. It's going to take months because Fulton is a big County. There's a lot of things that happened in the election. There's a lot of different processes from absentee ballot requests to absentee counting to polling places to equipment testing.
They're basically going to get a top-to-bottom review of how Fulton County conducted its elections recently, what the problems were, if there are any solutions that have already been put in place, and then eventually, there will be a report saying whether they recommend that that board be suspended, or if they take some other action.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It seems to me that there's two big possibilities here, maybe more, but along the spectrum, one is that the review happens, and ultimately, the board is not replaced. It's not taken over by the state board of elections. The other is that it is, in fact, replaced by the state board of elections but either way, does this cast a certain public doubt about the efficacy, the honesty, the ability to have free and fair elections in Fulton? Does that have a consequence, whether or not the state board takes over?
Stephen Fowler: Absolutely. Like we mentioned earlier, Fulton County has a history of problems with its elections. This is now a new process where the state is coming in and examining every aspect of how Fulton County's run its elections. As somebody who lives in Fulton County, there are neighbors and people that are very concerned about this review for different reasons. The two outcomes will be that this five-member bipartisan board will be temporarily suspended and that's a nuclear option, or there will be some sort of report saying, "These are the steps that you need to fix before this very big 2022 election," where we have the governor's race and one US Senate seat up.
It's still going to chart out a series of problems with how our votes are counted. That's going to be the number one thing that both the Fulton County election staff and the state election board have said, need to be fixed. During the meeting where they pick this panel, the democratic state election board member said that she hoped that Fulton County welcomed this, these outside eyes to come in and help show people that this is something they're taking seriously, that people can trust that their votes are counted fairly and that everything should go out without a hitch no matter where you live.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is the federal government involved at all?
Stephen Fowler: This is not something that the federal government is involved in, per se but there are eight different federal lawsuits challenging just about every part of Georgia's 98-page voting law, including this takeover provision. Democrats in voting rights groups say that this could amount to a hostile takeover of how local elections are run. Republicans say that this is just a review of counties that have maybe some less than stellar performances and there are several lawsuits that say that that wholesale ability to remove local elections officials and replace them with a single person does violate the constitution. That's currently being litigated and discussed in federal court.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with Georgia Public Broadcasting. Stephen, thanks for joining us, helping us to understand what's going on in Fulton and I hope you'll come back and keep us up to date as this continues to move forward.
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