Republicans trigger review of election officials in Georgia

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July 30 (Reuters) - Georgia Republicans on Friday triggered a formal review of election officials in Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold that includes Atlanta, the first step in a process that could lead to their removal and allow the Republican-controlled state legislature to take control of local election operations.

Republican House lawmakers from Fulton County released a letter calling for a performance review of the county's election officials, where Democratic President Joe Biden won heavily in the 2020 election, propelling his surprise victory over former President Donald Trump in the battleground state.

The letter, following a similar request from state senators this week, sets in motion a formal review under a sweeping new voting law state Republicans passed in March. Along with new ballot restrictions, the law granted the legislature more control over a state election board, while giving the board the ability to suspend county officials for poor performance or election code violations. read more

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Republicans say Fulton County has a long history of mismanaging their elections and the review was being requested to assure "voter confidence in our elections."

Robb Pitts, who is chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, did not respond to telephone and email inquiries from Reuters. On Thursday, he sent a letter to Georgia Democrats stating his "fear" that the review was for "political reasons," and questioned its legality.

Georgia's Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, has repeatedly insisted the 2020 election result in Georgia was accurate. Still, Raffensperger joined other Republicans in calling for a review of Fulton County election procedures.

Democrats, voting rights groups and non-partisan experts said the move was part of an effort by Republicans to take control of the most consequential local election board in the state - Fulton is Georgia's largest county and home to 10 percent of its population.

They also said it was the first example of Republicans actively trying to take control of an election board, a move that could become a model for Republicans nationally in states they control.

Under Georgia's new voting law, the State Elections Board can remove county elections officials after a review if they find "nonfeasance, malfeasance, or gross negligence in the administration of the elections" in at least two elections within two years.

Rebecca Sullivan, a Republican who is acting chair of the State Election Board, said the request for a performance review of Fulton County would likely be discussed at the board's next meeting on Aug. 18.

The review comes amid persistent and false claims by Trump that the 2020 election was stolen from him because of massive voter fraud. In Georgia, which Biden won by roughly 12,000 votes, two Republican-led recounts of the 2020 results turned up no evidence of widespread fraud.

Edward B. Foley, a Constitutional and elections expert at Ohio State University, said having a partisan legislature taking over local election operations is deeply troubling. Local election boards typically tally votes and then send the vote counts to a central state database.

"That’s the warning bell – it can lead to the corruption of the process and the undermining of the will of the people," Foley said.

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Reporting by Nathan Layne and Tim Reid, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Diane Craft

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