Georgia panel: Reforms, resources needed for election review

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ATLANTA (AP) — A process recently implemented by Georgia state lawmakers to examine how county officials handle elections is likely unsustainable without more resources or reforms, according to the panel that did the first review under the law.

The provision in a sweeping 2021 election overhaul allows state lawmakers who represent a given county to request a review of local election officials and their practices. That sets in motion a process that ultimately could lead to the replacement of county election officials by the State Election Board.

The first three-person review panel was appointed by the state board in August 2021 at the request of Republican lawmakers in Fulton County. The state's most populous county, Fulton, is a Democratic stronghold that includes most of the city of Atlanta and about 11% of the state's voters.

It has a history of problematic elections and has long been criticized by Republicans. Former President Donald Trump fixated on Fulton County in the wake of his narrow election loss in Georgia in 2020 and continues to push unfounded claims of widespread election fraud there.

The bipartisan review panel last month completed its required report and presented its findings on Tuesday to the State Election Board. The panel recommended against a state takeover of Fulton County's elections, saying that while the county still has work to do, it had made significant improvements.

The review panel included Stephen Day, a Democratic appointee to the Gwinnett County election board; Ricky Kittle, a Republican appointee to the Catoosa County election board; and Ryan Germany, who was until recently the longtime general counsel for the secretary of state’s office.

The existence of the review “helped incentivize Fulton County to make improvements to their elections, but it took an enormous amount of donated work, and it is difficult to see how it is a sustainable process that can continue to positively influence election administration in Georgia without some reforms,” the panel's report said.

In addition to observation and work done by the panel, the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which regularly monitors elections around the world, was invited to independently observe the 2022 general election in Fulton County and donated “almost 4000 people hours,” the report said.

Members of the panel told the state board on Tuesday that it would, perhaps, be more useful to implement a more positive, proactive and periodic review process to help counties fix problems before they become systemic.

“It is better to be a partner than an adversary, better to improve systems before dysfunction than trying to fix them after the fact,” Day said.

He suggested several possible approaches: a review process using retired election officials, or volunteers run through the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Election Officials; hiring outside consultants to do reviews; or having paid staff within the secretary of state's office that travels to all 159 counties for reviews. But he said that all of those options require funding and called on state lawmakers to adequately fund the secretary of state's office.

"If you value elections, then let’s fully fund the staff there and give them the person power they need to do the job rather than begging for crumbs, which they seem to have to do every year in their budget,” he said.

State Election Board Chair William Duffey said lawmakers who created the review panel process clearly thought it was necessary to have a mechanism to intervene when a county is in dire straits. But he said he doesn't want the board to be perceived “as the sheriff that runs into a county because we found a problem there.”

Instead, he said, he'd like the board to work proactively with the secretary of state's office and the counties to identify issues — and to establish uniform processes that can be implemented in all 159 counties. But he also said that the funding to do that is not currently available.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns, a Sylvania Republican whose committee oversees election matters, said he wasn’t aware of the statements made Tuesday before the State Election Board.

“Resources are always a challenge. I’m not aware of a specific request by the Secretary of State for resources for investigations,” said Burns, who chaired the committee when the sweeping election overhaul known as SB 202 passed.

Burns said he believed lawmakers would be receptive to a request for money needed for specific investigations. He praised Duffey and the current board.

“We’d like for every county to follow Georgia law,” Burns said.

The provision of state law that allows lawmakers to request a review panel says that up to four counties may be under review at any given time. Sara Tindall Ghazal, a Democratic appointee to the State Election Board, asked the panel whether that would be feasible.

“It would be impossible to do four counties at one time,” Kittle said, adding, “It may have been a good idea somebody had, but they really didn't think this out.”

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Associated Press writer Jeff Amy in Atlanta contributed reporting.