Fulton elections board votes to fire Director Rick Barron; fate remains in limbo

Despite support from staff and recent voting improvements, the board of registration and elections blames Director Rick Barron for past election struggles

Richard Barron board votes to fire
Rick Barron speaks at a press conference on November 6, 2020.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

Rick Barron managed two of the most significant and scrutinized elections in Fulton County’s history without major incident, weathering conspiracy theories spread by former president Donald Trump, as well as lawsuits, death threats, and a pandemic.

But on Tuesday, the county’s board of registration and elections voted 3-2 in favor of firing Barron, going against the wishes of the Fulton election director’s staff, who in recent days signed onto a letter in support of their boss.

In their letter, the staff described overcoming a pandemic, death threats, hostile poll watchers, a Covid-19 outbreak in the county’s warehouse, and the death of a beloved employee in order to conduct a “fair and unbiased election.”

“The person who is responsible for our success,” the staff wrote in a letter to the board, “is current Director Richard Barron who has shown his ability to guide, motivate, steer, and maintain the course of integrity, honesty, and fairness.”

Still, Democratic appointee Vernetta Keith Nuriddin and Republican appointees Mark Wingate and Dr. Kathleen Ruth voted to fire Barron. In contrast, Democratic appointee Aaron Johnson and board chair Mary Carole Cooney, an appointee of Fulton County commission chair Robb Pitts, voted in support of Barron.

On a Zoom call, Barron sat quietly, never speaking, while the board and the public discussed his job performance. He declined a request to comment for this story.

“We have just a history of systemic problems,” said Nuriddin. “I know if it was a popularity contest, Rick will win hands down. You know, I think it’s just not that.”

Nuriddin’s vote to fire Barron clashed with earlier statements she made in support of him and the department’s work.

In January 2020, Nuriddin wrote to Barron to say she agreed with an emailed statement labeling him “the best and most knowledgeable Registration and Elections director in the state.”

Later, in an email after the 2020 presidential election, Nuriddin seemed to congratulate Barron.

“Thank you for conducting one helluva an [sic] election. You did it,” she wrote.

Nuriddin voted to certify Fulton County’s November presidential election results. Her colleagues on the board, Ruth and Wingate, did not.

Barron took over the Fulton County elections department in 2013 and has long been the target of criticism. In a 2017 congressional race, Fulton was ridiculed for publishing results hours after other metro Atlanta counties. In Georgia’s 2018 race for governor, two precincts had to stay open until 10 p.m. after an equipment mix-up led to long lines. Barron and the county were accused of voter suppression. He admits to a mistake in that case, but says 99 percent of the county had a fine voting experience that day.

Then, in 2020, came a disastrous presidential primary election. Hundreds of poll workers quit, and dozens of volunteer polling places dropped out over fear of the coronavirus. Fulton County election department’s email system crashed, and people who requested mail-in ballots never received them. The lines at the polls were so long voters brought folding chairs, and at least one reported casting his ballot after 1 a.m. Barron called it the “single worst day” of his professional career.

Fulton County showed dramatic improvements in the November presidential election even as Trump and his allies spread conspiracy theories that led to death threats against many county workers. The nationally watched January senate runoff ran even more smoothly after Fulton gained experience handling the dramatic increase in mail-in voting sparked by the pandemic.

A monitor for the Georgia State Election Board, Carter Jones, spent 270 hours observing the department’s work and said he saw nothing that undermined the integrity of the election, but Jones was especially critical of how Fulton handled mail-in ballots during the November election.

Jones said Fulton’s processes seemed to function, but “were extremely sloppy and replete with chain of custody issues as the massive tide of ballots bounced around the Fulton Government HQ building.” He later concluded the January runoff election was a “comparative success.”

Republican Mark Wingate recounted a private meeting on January 11 in which the monitor told the Fulton County board of elections the mail-in ballot situation was dire.

“His terminology for that was ‘dangerous.’ I repeat. Dangerous,” Wingate said.

In the same meeting, Jones told the board Barron was not the department’s problem. The board that day voted to fire Barron, but because the meeting was private, the decision was considered invalid.

After the board’s public vote on Tuesday, Barron’s fate remains in a sort-of limbo. Fulton County attorneys have advised the elections board that the county board of commissioners must approve their decision. But when, and if, the issue will be added to the commission’s agenda remains unclear.

Tim Cummings, a manager in Fulton County’s election warehouse, said he was “frustrated” and “aggravated” by the board’s vote to fire Barron.

“These are people that are supposed to be looking out for the voters of Fulton County, and I gotta really wonder if they are looking out for the voters or [for] their own agenda,” Cummings said.

He worries the board’s decision will have lasting consequences for the department.

“The criteria for success as Fulton County elections director just got elevated to damn near impossibility,” he said. “Because if you just look out for the citizens of Fulton and do everything you can to make sure they can vote, you’re liable to lose your job; and if you don’t do that, you’re liable to lose your job.”

For his part, Cummings said he and his colleagues will keep doing the work it takes to run the county’s elections.

This story is part of a collaboration with public-radio station WABE, where Johnny Kauffman is a reporter. It’s possible thanks to support from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and the Abrams Foundation (no affiliation with Democrat Stacey Abrams).