ATLANTA (AP) — Officials in Georgia on Tuesday voted to fire the man in charge of overseeing elections in the state’s most populous county, which was frequently in the spotlight last year after a disastrous primary and attention from then-President Donald Trump.
The three members of the Fulton County Board of Elections who were in favor of terminating Rick Barron said problems caused by the coronavirus last year highlighted weaknesses in the county’s election management. They said change was necessary to modernize election processes and to restore voter confidence. Two members voted against firing Barron.
The vote came during a sometimes contentious video conference during which the board heard from elections department staff who expressed support for Barron, as well as some county residents who said he needed to go.
In a text message after the vote, Barron said he'd hold off on commenting until after a Fulton County Board of Commissioners meeting scheduled for Wednesday. “This vote could get rejected tomorrow,” he wrote. The chairman of the Board of Commissioners did not immediately return an email seeking clarification on whether the election board's decision needs to be approved by the commissioners.
When asked whether the commissioners' approval is necessary, county spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt replied, “That is our understanding.” She noted that the Board of Commissioners must sign off on the hiring of an elections director.
“The legal question is whether that applies in reverse,” she said in a text message to The Associated Press.
The county election board is made up of a chairperson appointed by the Board of Commissioners, two Republican appointees and two Democratic appointees. Democrat Vernetta Keith Nuriddin, the election board vice chair, joined Republicans Kathleen Ruth and Mark Wingate in voting to fire Barron. Chairperson Mary Carole Cooney and Democrat Aaron Johnson opposed termination.
Fulton County, which includes most of Atlanta, faced intense criticism last year after it had numerous problems during the June primary election, including hourslong waits at polling places and absentee ballots that were requested but never arrived.
Barron said many of the county's problems stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic. Processing of absentee ballots was slowed after some staffers tested positive for COVID-19. The virus outbreak also caused poll workers to drop out, complicated poll worker training on a new election system and led to a significant number of polling places having to be changed or consolidated.
The secretary of state's office, which has consistently been critical of Fulton County's handling of elections, opened investigations into the county's handling of the primary and in October entered into a consent order with the county to address problems. The county agreed to make a number of changes and to have an independent monitor oversee progress and compliance with the order.
In the two months following the general election, as he refused to accept his narrow loss in Georgia, President Donald Trump and his allies alleged widespread election fraud in the state and focused intently on Fulton County. They relied on selectively edited video and theories that election officials have consistently said are unfounded.
“I think this is an unfortunate situation that we're in,” Johnson said during a discussion among election board members before Tuesday's vote. He acknowledged that the June primary was a mess, but he said the elections staff recovered well under Barron's leadership and turned things around for the November general election and the January runoff election.
He also worried about the effect Barron's departure would have on the elections department and its staff: “I just think it's going to cause chaos in our department.”
Cooney noted that during an annual review a year ago, the election board gave Barron top marks. What changed in the last year was an extraordinary increase in the use of absentee ballots and other challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
“We have not given ourselves the opportunity to realize what an enormous challenge this last election cycle has been,” she said.
Nuriddin, who made the motion to fire Barron, said she was initially impressed by Barron and that he made improvements early on, such as increasing the number of early-voting locations. But she said the county's elections have been plagued by issues, and not just in 2020.
“It's about the consistent problems that this department has had,” Nuriddin said.
Ruth acknowledged that the 2020 election cycle was “truly unprecedented" and noted that there were improvements between June and November. But she said last year's elections “did highlight many vulnerabilities in the Fulton election system — errors, sloppy and inefficient processes — that really are unacceptable.”