Georgia Republicans say it”;s merely an attempt to improve a chronically mismanaged elections administration.
But a newly-formed election review panel in Atlanta”;s Fulton County is nevertheless sparking outrage –; and paranoia –; from Democrats who believe it”;s the GOP”;s first step toward commandeering the levers of election administration in the counties that powered Democratic gains last year.
The belief is not entirely unfounded. Under Georgia”;s restrictive new voting law, if an election review panel finds evidence of unresolved errors or a breach of election law in a county”;s election oversight since 2018, the state can disband the local board and replace it with a state-appointed superintendent. That figure would assume key decisions like voting locations, precinct staffing and vote certification.
In the GOP”;s action in Fulton County, Democrats see the makings of a grand design to take control of local election offices in the metro Atlanta region, which would give Republicans the power to challenge election results, hold up certification and announce investigations in the counties that produce the most Democratic votes. In other words, it would enable them to execute the pieces of the Trump playbook that failed in 2020.
While the law only allows election boards in four counties at a time to be disbanded, that would be more than enough to swing a statewide election if those counties happened to be Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and DeKalb –; the state”;s four most populous counties –; where the bulk of Georgia”;s Democratic votes are concentrated.
“;It’s hard to see how this isn’t just a cursory act before the takeover,”; said Erick Allen, a Democratic state representative and candidate for lieutenant governor whose district sits in Cobb County, north of Atlanta. “;I don’t know anyone that’s thinking that this is not going to lead to what we think.”;
Fulton and neighboring Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb counties played key roles in turning the longtime red state into one of the most competitive battlegrounds in the nation. In a state that hasn”;t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1996, those four counties combined netted Joe Biden a 625,000 vote margin over Donald Trump, enough to offset Trump”;s rural performance in Georgia.
That metro Atlanta coalition of Black, Latino and Asian voters also fueled the success of Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, whose campaigns ginned up historic turnout in the region during both the November general election and January 2021 runoffs.
“;Hanging over our heads, we’re thinking, “;Big Brother’s watching,”;”; said Jacquelyn Bettadapur, chair of the Cobb County Democratic party. “;If [Republicans] don’t like what they see, are they gonna roll into town and want to do a performance review?”;
Republicans have largely dismissed Democratic concerns as overblown. Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, who is running for lieutenant governor, said that his statehouse colleagues have not yet made plans to establish election review panels in the counties around metro Atlanta.
“;We will get to those counties as time comes, if that’s appropriate, but we’re not going after [them],”; Miller, who co-sponsored the legislation, said. “;There’s no, quote, hit list, unquote. We’re just trying to take care of the business at hand.”;
The Fulton County review was initiated after Republican lawmakers sent two letters to the state elections board last month, citing long lines, administrative issues and late distribution of absentee ballots during the 2018 and 2020 elections.
It”;s true that there is a high bar to taking over a county”;s election board. While creating a review panel requires little more than a letter to the state elections board from at least one representative and one senator who represent an individual county, the process of disbanding a county election board is cumbersome.
It requires the review panel to find and document a breach of election law or multiple instances of wrongdoing over the last two years of elections before the state election board decides whether or not to vote to disband the county board. The wrongdoing is defined as “;demonstrated malfeasance or gross negligence.”;
Democrats, however, point to the partisan backdrop behind these efforts, which come after Trump pressured state elections officials to “;find”; 12,000 nonexistent votes in Fulton County in 2020. An independent elections monitor had already found no evidence of fraud in the county.
They note that Republicans will have a majority on Fulton County”;s three-person election review panel and envision a troubling specter of white, conservative state election officials taking over county election boards in heavily Democratic, racially diverse counties.
“;All these things combined could have a negative impact on the minority vote in Fulton County,”; said Rob Pitts, chair of the Fulton County Board of Elections. “;And we are the reason for Biden winning, Ossoff winning and Warnock winning.”;
Statewide, Democrats are piecing together a strategy to fight the law, as activists vow to oppose it and fundraise to bring more suits against it. In Congress, Warnock and Ossoff have proposed a slimmed-down version of the For the People Act that would establish stricter guidelines for disbanding county boards of elections.
Several opponents of the law have challenged it in the courts, though few suits have directly challenged the election board provisions, however, and instead cited its voter ID requirements and ballot dropbox limitations, which they say unfairly handicap low-income voters and people of color.
Other groups say they plan to challenge the takeover provision if Republicans use their influence on county boards to alter election results. So far, several organizations including Fair Fight, the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP Legal Defense Fund have brought nearly a dozen lawsuits against the state law, according to a tracker from the Brennan Center for Justice.
At the county level, text chains and phone conversations between party chairs have occurred with greater frequency over the last few weeks since the formation of the Fulton County review board.
Some have aimed to learn more about the makeup of Fulton”;s three-member review panel and its sole Democrat, Stephen Day. Day chaired the Gwinnett County election board during the 2018 midterm elections, in which Gwinnett”;s disproportionate rejection of mail-in ballots made it the center of a fight over election administration.
When reached via email, Day declined comment for this story, adding that all members of the election review panel have agreed not to discuss it publicly until the review is complete.
According to several county leaders, the main goal is to establish a playbook for how to navigate a possible review panel in their county.
“;It was a discussion in a potential way before. But now of course, it is in practice, actually,”; said Brenda Lopez-Romero, chair of the Gwinnett County Democratic party.
Still, all of those efforts might not be enough since Republicans control both state legislative chambers and the governorship, which will have total oversight over how the new provision will be implemented.
“;It does feel like our hands are tied in terms of what we can do,”; said state Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democrat who is running for secretary of state. “;I think any voter in the state of Georgia, when they go to cast their ballot under the new provision, they will recognize that it was not as easy to be able to vote as it used to be.”;
The dire predictions are also stirring fears about the effect on Black, Latino and Asian turnout in the future if their votes are called into question in the counties where they are most concentrated.
“;It’s targeting, literally, the sovereignty of the counties who run their elections. And they are targeting counties that are heavily Black,”; Allen said.
It could “;totally”; harm Democrats”; chances in 2022, said Lewanna Heard-Tucker, chair of the Fulton County Democratic party.
“;If we win these seats like we expect to, there is no stopping them [from coming for other metro Atlanta counties] at that point. They are going to pull out every single stop,”; Heard-Tucker said. “;They”;re trying to make sure that they secure a lineage for a decade or more.”;
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