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Fulton board gets new chair as Georgia reviews its elections

September 16, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2020 file photo, former Atlanta City Councilwoman and Elector Cathy Woolard holds documents as members of Georgia's Electoral College cast their votes at the state Capitol in Atlanta.  Commissioners in Georgia's Fulton County have picked a former Atlanta City Council president to lead the county's elections board. They picked former  Woolard for the job in the Democratic stronghold, which is under a state elections review.  ”(AP Photo/John Bazemore, Pool)
FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2020 file photo, former Atlanta City Councilwoman and Elector Cathy Woolard holds documents as members of Georgia's Electoral College cast their votes at the state Capitol in Atlanta. Commissioners in Georgia's Fulton County have picked a former Atlanta City Council president to lead the county's elections board. They picked former Woolard for the job in the Democratic stronghold, which is under a state elections review. ”(AP Photo/John Bazemore, Pool)
FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2020 file photo, former Atlanta City Councilwoman and Elector Cathy Woolard holds documents as members of Georgia's Electoral College cast their votes at the state Capitol in Atlanta. Commissioners in Georgia's Fulton County have picked a former Atlanta City Council president to lead the county's elections board. They picked former Woolard for the job in the Democratic stronghold, which is under a state elections review. ”(AP Photo/John Bazemore, Pool)

ATLANTA (AP) — Commissioners in Fulton County have picked a former Atlanta City Council president to lead their election board as a state panel reviews how elections are conducted in Georgia’s most populous county.

The Fulton County Board of Commissioners voted Wednesday to appoint Cathy Woolard to chair the five-person county Board of Registration and Elections. Her nomination by Board of Commissioners Chair Robb Pitts succeeded despite condemnation of the choice by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s top elections official.

Raffensperger, a Republican facing a primary challenge next year, objected to what he called a “blatantly political appointment” because Woolard had registered earlier this year as a lobbyist for Fair Fight Action, a group started by Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost the race for governor to Republican Brian Kemp in 2018. While Abrams hasn’t said she’s running, she’s widely expected to challenge Kemp to a rematch next year.

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“Fulton County needs to think again before appointing someone who is bought and paid for by Stacey Abrams to run elections in Fulton County,” Raffensperger said in a news release Tuesday. He said it would “do incredible damage to the already terrible reputation Fulton has for running elections.”

Raffensperger said in the release that he would seek the removal of the entire county board of elections by invoking a provision in Georgia’s new election law if Woolard is in charge.

Pitts, who has often traded barbs with the secretary of state, said Woolard is a longtime public servant who’s well qualified for the role. He accused Raffensperger of “playing political games.”

“I wish we had a Secretary of State who cared as much about Fulton County’s voters as he did about winning his upcoming primary, but unfortunately we do not,” Pitts said. “Thankfully, here in Fulton County, we now have Ms. Woolard to fill the void where his leadership has failed.”

Commissioner Lee Morris, a Republican, said he asked Woolard about her work for Fair Fight, and she said she did not do any actual lobbying for the group, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“All she really did was introduce some folks from here to there,” Morris said.

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Fulton County, which is home to about 11% of the state’s electorate, is a Democratic stronghold that includes most of the city of Atlanta. It has a long history of election problems and has been a consistent target for Republicans. After the county’s primary election last year was marred by problems, an independent monitor was appointed as part of a consent order reached with the State Election Board.

That monitor observed Fulton County’s election processes from October through January and wrote that he witnessed “sloppy processes” and “systemic disorganization” but did not see “any illegality, fraud or intentional malfeasance.”

Former President Donald Trump zeroed in on Fulton County after narrowly losing Georgia in the November general election, claiming without evidence that fraud in the county aided President Joe Biden’s victory. He also heavily criticized Raffensperger for not acting to overturn his loss, and has endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice who’s set to challenge Raffensperger in the Republican primary next year.

The State Election Board last month appointed a three-person review panel to investigate Fulton County’s handling of elections after receiving requests from Republican lawmakers who represent the county. The lawmakers were using a controversial provision of the state’s sweeping new election law that provides a path for a state takeover of elections in a county.

In addition to serving on Atlanta’s City Council, Woolard also ran unsuccessfully to be Atlanta mayor four years ago and served as a member of Georgia’s Electoral College delegation in December. She thanked Pitts and other commissioners for their support after they chose her for the job.

“My experience as a candidate and as presiding officer of the Atlanta City Council gives me perspective and context for the challenges we face as voters and public servants conducting safe and fair elections,” Woolard tweeted. “I look forward to getting started.”

The Fulton County election board is made up of two Democratic appointees, two Republican appointees and a chair who is appointed by the Board of Commissioners.

During a news conference Thursday, Raffensperger reiterated his opposition to Woolard taking the helm of the Fulton County election board. One of his top deputies, Gabriel Sterling, also expressed concerns before Woolard was selected but took a more measured approach after the commission vote to approve Woolard as election board chair.

“I think the optics will feed potential conspiracies,” Sterling tweeted Wednesday evening. “But I also think she is smart and a hard worker and will hopefully do all she can to demonstrate an even keeled approach to help assuage some fears.”