ATLANTA (AP) -- Georgia's Republican-controlled State Election Board plans to take a step Wednesday toward a possible eventual takeover of elections in the state's most populous county that critics argue could open elections up to political interference.
Fulton County, a Democratic bastion that includes most of the city of Atlanta, has long been the target of Republican lawmakers' ire. Their attacks only increased after former President Donald Trump and his allies made unfounded claims that fraud in the county contributed to his narrow loss in the state. An independent monitor found no evidence of fraud or impropriety.
GOP lawmakers last month asked the state board to appoint a performance review panel to investigate Fulton County's handling of elections. The requests initiated a process outlined in the state's sweeping new election law that could allow the Republican-controlled state board to replace the county's board of registration and elections with an administrator it chooses.
The Republican lawmakers who asked for the review said they want to ensure that election officials in the county, which is home to about 11% of the state's electorate, have been following state voting laws and regulations. Democrats and voting rights activists have said the new takeover provision could allow political interference in local elections.
Under the new law, lawmakers who represent a given county may request a review of local election officials. In Fulton County, that's the county board of registration and elections. The review board is to be composed of "three competent persons," including an employee of the elections division of the secretary of state's office and two "local election officials."
The review board is tasked with conducting a complete and thorough investigation into the competency in the maintenance and operation of election equipment, the administration and oversight of registration and elections and compliance with state law and regulations. Then the board is to issue a report with evaluations and recommendations.
The investigation is to be followed by a preliminary hearing within 90 days of the receipt of the original request. During that preliminary hearing, the State Election Board is to decide whether the matter should be dismissed or whether it should proceed to a full hearing.
The state board could suspend the county board if it finds evidence county officials violated state election law or rules three times since 2018 and have not fixed violations. It could also remove the county board if it finds that during at least two elections over two years the board has shown "nonfeasance, malfeasance, or gross negligence."
The State Election Board, currently with a 3-1 Republican majority, would appoint a temporary administrator to run Fulton County elections if it finds wrongdoing. The county board could seek reinstatement. If the state board refuses, its administrator would remain in place for at least nine months. The administrator would have the authority to make any personnel changes related to running elections, including replacing the director of elections and all poll officers.
The state board also is charged with setting rules for the process. Once the rules are proposed, they will be subject to a public comment period before they can be adopted.