Fulton County BRE Lawsuit: Board of Elections Stonewalling Statutory Duties of Board Superintendents

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  • Source: UncoverDC
  • 05/23/2024

Fulton County Election Board member Julie Adams believes she is being actively prevented from fulfilling her statutory duties in Fulton County elections. As a result, Adams filed a lawsuit against the Fulton County Board of Elections and Registration (BRE) and Elections Director Nadine Williams on May 21, 2024. Adams is requesting the courts intervene on her behalf to ensure that the BRE "may not inhibit BRE members from gaining access to election materials and processes now under the control of the Director" in "real-time" going forward. Adams' lawsuit is a testament to a growing community of civic-minded citizens in Georgia.

Since her appointment to the BRE on Jan. 17, Adams claims she has "been prevented from performing here statutory duties as she has been denied, and continues to be denied, access to essential election materials and processes by which elections in Fulton County are conducted." In addition, Adams claims that "core BRE responsibilities" have been both consolidated and delegated to Election Director Williams by way of a set of Bylaws that have yet to be officially adopted. With that authority in operation, Williams has allegedly repeatedly blocked Adams' requests for "supporting documentation relative to election results," rejecting Adams' requests as "unnecessary."

The types of documents Adams has asked for are well within her duty and discretion to request. Adams has repeatedly requested materials related to "election processes, systems, records, materials, data, equipment, reports from poll workers, and other vital information" associated with election administration in Fulton County. These records include the Qualified Voter List, Voter Check-in List, Poll Open and Close Tapes, Ballot Recap Sheets, Provisional Ballot Recap Sheets, Voting Ballot Removal Forms, Cast Vote Record List, and Absentee Ballot Records." Without access to these Election Materials and Processes, Adams states she and the other BRE members "are left to rely on the bare representations of the Director."

Williams has justified her lack of cooperation by trying to reassure Adams. In correspondence and during board meetings, Williams states that she puts election administration information through a "rigorous validation process," implying that Adams should trust the accuracy of William's Director's summaries without seeing the supporting materials. 

Williams rejected Adams' requests on four different dates, responding on at least one occasion that "no access would be granted to anything beyond the Excel spreadsheets traditionally prepared and provided by the Director to the BRE." Williams explained (Exhibit 4) that the "Excel format allows Advance Voting Managers to correct errors seamlessly...and the documents undergo rigorous validation processes to ensure their accuracy and compliance with legal requirements. Your comment," Williams continued, "Insinuates that these forms were doctored which leads to misinformation and distrust in the electoral process" and that they lead to "[b]aseless allegations" that "work against and divide this unit and work against all the voters we serve." Williams allegedly referenced a recap sheet with a questionable signature that Adams had every right to investigate and challenge. 

Election boards are composed of multiple members for a reason. One of those reasons would be reasonable checks and balances, especially when it involves the sanctity of the vote. Citing Georgia law, Adams points out that the "statutory role of election superintendent...cannot be delegated in its entirety to the Director." Adams claims Williams "refused to allow access to key information for the Primary Election of May 21, 2024," and her sole authority is ongoing.

When election board members do not toe the line, they are often subjected to harassment and intimidation. Adams and another board member, Michael Heekin, voted against the Presidential Preference Primary (PPP) certification in March because they were not allowed access to pertinent election-related materials. Adams asked for certain materials in a Mar. 7 email five days before the Mar. 12 PPP. Williams explained the documents "are not readily available by the dates requested for a county of this size" and that "there would be no changes to the way we operate for certification purposes."

After the PPP, on Mar. 29, 2024, Michael Weiss, the Deputy General Counsel for the Democratic Party of Georgia (DPG), sent a letter to all BRE members, including Adams, reminding BRE members that their jobs are purely ministerial when it comes to certification of elections. The letter (Exhibit 3 in the lawsuit) named two members, Michael Heekin and Julie Adams, for their votes against certification, as follows:

"Heekin and Adams' votes against certification of the 2024 Georgia Presidential Primary were improper regardless of any purported justification given. The Georgia Election Code is clear that certification of election results is a ministerial task performed by members of the Board of Elections and is not subject to their discretion."

BRE duties, including certification, are discretionary by law and not purely ministerial. The statutory framework is clearly laid out in the lawsuit. Nevertheless, the letter from Weiss "implore[d] all members of the Board of Elections to approve certification of Fulton County's election results going forward, and in particular for remaining elections that will be held by 2024, to avoid unnecessary challenges and disputes." Unfortunately, in the real world, a vote against certification exposes Adams "to potential legal action, including but not limited to possible criminal sanctions," as highlighted in the lawsuit. This type of pressure campaign instills fear and discourages earnest people from fulfilling their duties. Sadly, tactics like these often work, as witnessed in numerous counties after the 2020 and 2022 elections. 

The lawsuit also highlights numerous instances where the board has been made aware of violations of the Georgia Election Code but has fallen short of correcting the violations for future elections. In one of the instances, a Consent Order was issued by the State Election Board (SEB) in the aftermath of Fulton County's 2020 primary. The Consent Order (Exhibit 5) detailed over 410 complaints regarding the BRE's conduct of the primary. The SEB appointed a monitor (see Seven Hills Strategies Report, Exhibit 6) to oversee the "BRE's operations during the 2020 general election." However, despite the monitoring, the Complaint proves Fulton County BRE continued "to engage in numerous violations of the Georgia Election Code." 

Adams' lawsuit references numerous other Complaints, but one in particular (SEB2023-025, the Moncla Rossi Complaint) was most recently discussed in a May 7, 2024, State Election Board (SEB) hearing that prompted Dr. Jan Johnston to state that "[T]here is enough evidence to suggest that the Respondents violated Georgia election laws and State Election Board rules, to such an excess, that we should be embarrassed for the Fulton County Registration and Elections." There is little question that there are material issues with Fulton County elections despite every possible effort by government officials to claim otherwise.

Change is Hard
Adams is, in part, wrestling with a board and a government bureaucracy that has been doing things a certain way "for decades," as BRE Fulton County Chair Patrise Perkins-Hooker highlighted in the Mar. 12 meeting. The Chair responded to concerns over the chain of custody issues in the PPP brought forward by BRE member Michael Heekin. At the time, he and Adams struggled with a yes vote for certification because of various concerns. A lengthy discussion among board members ensued. There was much back and forth between the old guard and the new regarding which materials requests were appropriate and necessary before a vote to certify a Fulton County election. Chair Perking-Hooker responded with the following: 
"So I wanted to let you know, it's in the history of this board, there has never been a request for these documents, and the elections have gone off smoothly. And the Secretary of State's office has not had a complaint about us missing the ballot chain of custody or ballot recap. It's only been a recent phenomenon with certain people believing that there is a conspiracy with regard to the chain of custody of various things, that there is somehow a missing link or a missing document. These are not things over the history of the board they've ever gotten.
So it's not like it's something you're just being denied. A request has been made, but it's something that has never been necessary to complete a certification. What was necessary was the actual votes and the totals of the votes, making certain those totals agreed and accounting for any variation. We went through a discussion last time with elections. We're trying to look at the numbers to make certain they all totaled up and explained that there were any variances. But when you start asking for other things, then the board as a whole— I think that would be something that the board would have to decide that they want to cause. It's not a problem with other people to certify elections. Elections have been certified without that information for decades before I got here; they said they were doing it that way."
One small concession emerged from the discussion. Perkins-Hooker suggested that Heekin and Adams present proposals in writing to the board for discussion at a later date. Adams' lawsuit certainly fulfills that request. If the past four years have shown anything, it is that opinions held by longstanding election board members are generally exceedingly difficult to change. As a result, many novel solutions that would benefit voters are not being properly considered.

However, just because things have "always been done this way for decades" does not mean things are being done lawfully. The exhibits attached to Adams' lawsuit, noting a myriad of proven violations of the Georgia Code, certainly provide ample reason to question current practices in Fulton County. The difficulty of convincing longstanding board members to entertain data and material evidence makes them uncomfortable. To admit that laws are being broken is a hard pill to swallow for those who have never been questioned or challenged. Adams and Heekin are not out of line in challenging the Fulton BRE to rethink processes in service of making certification of Fulton County elections certifications Georgians can trust.  

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