Richard Barron and Mary Carole Cooney, Fulton County’s top two elections officials, are in the hot seat after they were blamed for the variety of problems the county experienced with the June 9 primary election.
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired every time there’s something going on with the elections,” Marvin Arrington Jr., the Fulton County Board of Commissioners’ District 5 representative, said. “… Every time there is an excuse. It doesn’t make any sense. We’ll it makes sense. It’s incompetence is what it is.
“Then to come in and say it’s the secretary of state (at fault is wrong). We had people who were waiting at polling locations since 6 o’clock. We had a poll worker who forgot her keys. She had to go home and get the keys. I know you guys are working hard and I know your staff works hard, but wooh, I am sick and tired of the excuses.”
Barron, the director of the county’s department of registration and elections, and Cooney, chair of Fulton’s board of registration and elections, addressed the problems during an election update at the board of commissioners’ June 17 recess meeting at Assembly Hall in downtown Atlanta. It was the first commission meeting held in person since the COVID-19 pandemic forced all meetings to go virtual.
The election issues ranged from residents not receiving absentee ballots to voters waiting up to six hours in line to vote due to short-staffed polling precincts because of the outbreak to poll workers improperly trained on how to use the state’s new voting machines.
Except for the week or two in March when early voting took place for the March 24 presidential primary before it was postponed due to the pandemic, the new machines were being utilized in an election for the first time.
Officials defend themselves
“Since the election,” Cooney said, “the (elections) board and our elections director have been determined to be able to present ourselves to the (commission) chairman’s task force and to this board what went wrong, why it went wrong and what we’ll do to fix it. … I’m concerned the information that has been out in the community has not really taken into account the factors we determined so far.
“We know what went wrong. The absentee ballot process didn’t work. We had too few polling places, too few staff, too few hours and undertrained staff and 45 polling place changes necessitated by the coronavirus. Polling places opened late and lines remained long and stayed long well into the night.”
Like other elections officials from Fulton and other counties, Cooney said the secretary of state’s office was also to blame, citing U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg’s 2018 ruling regarding a legal challenge to Georgia’s voting system requesting the new machines be used in the November election that year.
In her ruling, Totenberg said, “The court is concerned whether the state is prepared to instated the new voting machines by the March 24 presidential preference primary election.” Fulton is one of over a dozen counties that had election problems, and the secretary of state’s office has blamed those counties’ elections officials for their problems.
Cooney said the equipment arrived after it was promised and required extra power and had other issues.
“This equipment required additional electric capacity and additional plugs and outlets that traditional polling places did not have,” she said. “Therefore, we were unable to open our polling places on time, and when they did open, our poll managers did not get them going on time. We found there were big problems with the poll pads. The one uniform password for the entire county was operative in some places but not the county.”
Cooney also said the county’s decision to delay replying to voters’ emailed requests for absentee ballots was a mistake that led to a backlog of tens of thousands of requests that either were processed late or never processed in time. There were other issues, both the county’s fault and the state’s, she said.
“Six out of seven poll workers declined to serve us because of the pandemic. Some of these problems were out of our control, including the pandemic. ... The others require the cooperation of the state, and we intend to seek it.”
Cooney said Barron plans to have regular discussions with other metro Atlanta counties’ elections officials and confer with the secretary of state’s office about it.
In addressing the commission, Barron said, “My department and I share everyone’s frustration. You’re unhappy. The voters are unhappy. We’re working hard to make sure what happened is not a repeat performance. We prepared for this election under (difficult) circumstances. We are working with the county manager and executive leadership to look at a number of ways of improving going forward. We need to look at our successes and failures in previous elections and deal with those.”
He said turnout in the primary was 27.6%, up from 13% in the 2016 primary election. After only 947 absentee ballots were turned in four years ago, a whopping 87,960 were cast in this year’s primary.
Residents riled up
Of the 13 individuals who spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion, nine talked about the election issues, including three who ran for office June 9.
Raiford Johnson, a city of South Fulton resident, said asked for an absentee ballot three times, including contacting an elections employee he knows, but never got one.
“Fulton County clams to be a leader,” Johnson said. “It is time to lead and move beyond the excuses. It’s time to make sure all our voters are encouraged to vote and not disenfranchised. What happened June 9 should never happen again. ... We’ve passed out a list of demands. We need new leadership in elections.
“We need to move toward electronic voting, and I’m talking about online voting. We also need to make sure people know what they’re voting on and are encouraged to receive that information.”
Like Johnson, Jonathan Likes said he believes the election should include an online option.
“I’m here today to ask for dignity,” Likes said. “I asked for an absentee ballot and stood in line for three and a half hours to vote in my primary election. Voting should be as easy as swiping left or right on Tinder.
“Until that happens, we’re living in the largest economic depression since the Great Depression. We need radical changes with our elections. We need deep, real solutions here. We’re experiencing violence on multiple fronts. I’m pleading with you. I’m asking you. I’m begging you. Please fix it.”
Commissioners chime in
Some commissioners criticized Barron and Cooney, with District 4’s Natalie Hall even asking if the commission had the power to fire Barron, but only the elections board does. However, commission Chair Robb Pitts said the state Legislature, which resumed its 2020 session June 15 following a three-month break due to the pandemic, is crafting bills to give it the power to dissolve the elections board.
District 2 Commissioner Bob Ellis, one of four commissioners who reeled off a list of complaints they’d heard from constituents who had problems voting, said many of the problems Fulton had couldn’t be blamed on the state.
“There are some customer service issues that have didley to do with the state,” he said. “They are our focus. We have had such a focus on customer service with the county. … It also embarrassed this whole county in things that were basic as customer service. The ability to have someone dedicated to looking at an email or responding to a phone call is beyond COVID-19.”
District 1 Commissioner Liz Hausmann said she’s “flabbergasted” the department had so many problems despite getting a $16 million budget for all of this year’s elections and receiving every resource it asked for from the county.
“I wish we weren’t having this conversation,” she said. “I do want to acknowledge the hard work of our election workers, some of whom worked until midnight. I didn’t expect to hear so much finger pointing, and that’s quite disappointing. We have to own this.”
Barron said mistakes included not training enough poll workers in person, since most were trained virtually after the pandemic set in, and having not enough early voting sites. He said he plans to contact the 45 venues that declined to serve as Election Day poll locations to ask if the county can use them for the primary runoff Aug. 11 and the general election Nov. 3.
District 6 Commissioner Joe Carn said the primary election problems served as voter suppression, though in a concealed and unintentional way.
“The voter suppression is your mistakes,” he said. “It’s not flagrant: ‘Oh, we’re out of paper.’ ‘Oh, we changed precincts.’ ‘Oh, we sent out notices only two days before the election.’”
Pitts and County Attorney Dick Anderson have already established external and internal election task forces to look at ways to fix the department’s problems, and Arrington motioned to have the board create its own task force on the election. It was approved 4-2, with Pitts and Morris dissenting and Ellis abstaining.
Pitts and Morris defended Cooney, and Pitts also backed Barron.
“I don’t think anyone could have done better unless you were omniscient,” Morris said of Cooney.
About the board chair, Pitts added, “There times when heads should roll, but now is not the time. Early voting starts July 20.”
Pitts also gave an 11-year history of the previous department directors, saying Barron isn’t perfect but has done well.
“My point simply is we’ve had some issues,” he said, “but it’s not time to make a change yet.”