Fulton County is parting ways with Richard Barron, its department of registrations and elections director.
“For me personally, my decision was based on not 2020’s election (cycle) but 2017, 2018, 2019,” said Vernetta Keith Nuriddin, vice chair of county’s board of registrations and elections, referring to problems Fulton has had in past elections.
At its Feb. 16 special called meeting, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the board voted 3-2 to fire Barron, who has held his position since 2013. Nurridan Mark Wingate and Kathleen Ruth voted yes, with Mary Carole Cooney (chair) and Aaron Johnson dissenting. State Elections Deputy Director Blake Evans, Fulton’s former elections chief under Barron, has been recommended by the board to serve as the interim director.
Barron has been criticized for how he managed past Fulton elections, especially the June primary, when residents waited up to five hours to vote due to problems at the polls, putting the county in the national media spotlight.
But following that election, the director was praised for how he handled the November general election and the January runoff for the state’s two U.S. Senate seats and a Public Service Commission post, both of which went more smoothly.
However, in November, the secretary of state’s office opened two investigations into that month’s election. Gabriel Sterling, the office’s COO, said there were issues with Fulton’s “chain of custody” regarding votes and “managerial sloppiness” with the department’s handling of a water leak at State Farm Arena.
Johnson and Cooney said they hoped their fellow board members would reconsider the decision to fire Barron.
“I think this is an unfortunate situation that we’re in. … Everybody admits the June election was not our best. It was awful. You can use whatever adjective you want for that election. But I do know that staff recovered well,” Johnson said, adding the local elections task force members he spoke to had similar opinions.”
Cooney said Barron “got the highest possible grades from us” in his most recent evaluation with the board about a year ago.
“What was the difference between 2020 and 2021?” she said. “There were a couple of things. One of them was the secretary of state starting a brand-new, statewide absentee ballot initiative in the middle of the election, and it was all unleashed on us.
“I don’t think that anybody present at this meeting has taken into account what happened to us with that. People got absentee ballots or applications from all kinds of third parties, and were confused by them and rightfully so. The secretary of state’s MVP (My Voter Page) did not work well.”
She and other board members also blamed the secretary of state's office for some of the other problems Barron's department experienced in 2020.
Board members voting for and against Barron’s firing praised him for expanding early voting soon after taking the job and for, during the 2020 election cycle and pandemic, using more drop boxes for voters to submit their absentee ballots and utilizing empty venues such as State Farm Arena as polling precincts.
But the number of past problems the county has had piled up against him. Of the 12 individuals speaking during the meeting’s public comment period prior to the vote, including some current and former department employees, seven supported keeping Barron and four asked he be fired.
Regina Waller, who read a letter from the department backing Barron, listed the challenges it faced during the 2020 elections, including one employee dying of the virus and 30 contracting it, plus death threats to workers or volunteers and other issues.
“Yet through it all, our director persevered and even with the mistakes, we conducted fair and unbiased elections,” the letter stated. “We showed vast improvements in the January 2021 election as the nation awaited the outcome and will continue to improve.”
But others said Barron should be fired because of the way he’s mishandled past elections.
“With the experience that Richard Barron has, why was our election process so unprofessionally run?” Rhonda Thomas said. “Poll managers of 20 years were fired due to speaking out (about problems).”
Barron attended the meeting but did not speak. He did not return a voicemail message to his cell phone seeking comment on his firing.