New chair appointed to head elections board in Georgia's Fulton County

The elections board in Georgia's most populous county, a Democratic stronghold targeted by former President Donald Trump after his narrow 2020 loss in the state, will soon have new leadership.

The Fulton County Board of Commissioners voted Wednesday to approve the selection of lawyer Patrise Perkins-Hooker to serve as chair of the county Registration and Elections Board. Her nomination — announced at the start of Wednesday's commission meeting — came as a surprise to many since commission Chairman Robb Pitts had last week nominated former commissioner Lee Morris to fill the seat.

The nomination of Morris, a Republican, would have shifted control of the the elections board from Democrats to Republicans in the heavily Democratic county, which includes most of Atlanta and is home to just over 1 million people. The county Democratic and Republican parties get two appointments apiece to round out the five-person board.

Democrats and voting rights activists had raised alarms and urged the commissioners not to approve Morris’ appointment. They complained of insufficient time for public input between the announcement of his nomination on Friday and the vote Wednesday. They also said Morris hadn’t demonstrated a commitment to protecting voting rights and worried he would bend to the will of the two other Republican board members.

The substitution of Perkins-Hooker was cheered by many attending the commission meeting.

Before opening the floor for public comment, Pitts read aloud an email he had received from Morris withdrawing his nomination.

Morris wrote that he had “always tried to avoid the hyper-partisanship that has been so destructive in our country and state" and said he had thought he could have brought nonpartisanship to the elections board. But he said he understood the feelings of so many Democrats that a Democratic county should have a Democratic majority on the elections board.

“Otherwise, the optics, as they say, aren't good,” Morris wrote, adding that his nomination had become and his service on the board would be “divisive,” which he said is “the last thing I want for our county.”

The two Republicans on the seven-person commission, Bridget Thorne and Bob Ellis, decried the attacks on Morris and praised his public service. Thorne said a vote on Perkins-Hooker should be delayed to allow time for vetting.

But the commissioners voted 4-0 to approve the nomination of Perkins-Hooker, who is currently an attorney for the election board and has previously served as Fulton County attorney, general counsel for the urban development project Atlanta BeltLine and president of the Georgia State Bar.

She will succeed election board Chair Cathy Woolard, whose term ends June 30 and who had notified the commissioners that she did not want to serve another two-year term.

Fulton County has had a history of troubled elections, with problems including long lines to vote and delays in reporting results. The problems were particularly acute during the 2020 primary election. An independent monitor appointed to observe the general election that year as part of a consent agreement found the county's elections were badly managed but said there was no evidence of fraud.

Trump zeroed in on Fulton County after he lost to Democrat Joe Biden in the November 2020 general election, claiming without evidence that fraud in the county cost him the state.

He repeatedly disparaged Fulton County during a January 2021 phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. During that conversation, the then-president suggested the state's top elections could help “find” the votes Trump needed to win.

Shortly after a recording of that call was make public, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis opened an investigation into whether Trump and his allies broke the law while trying to overturn his election loss. She has said she'll announce charging decisions in that case this summer.

A sweeping election law passed the next year by Republican state lawmakers in Georgia included a provision that could ultimately allow the state to take over a county's elections. It was promptly used to target Fulton County, with a bipartisan review panel appointed in August 2021 to evaluate the county's election processes.

That panel in January submitted its final report to the State Election Board. It recommended against a state takeover of Fulton County's elections, saying the county has shown considerable improvement. The state board has yet to take action on that recommendation.