Carter Center to monitor midterms in Georgia's Fulton County

Carter Center employee Jordan McNairy collects signed codes of conduct from volunteer election observers training on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The center is training nonpartisan election observers to review how Fulton County, Georgia, handles elections. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Trainers laid out the do’s and don’ts of being an election monitor on Saturday at the Carter Center in Atlanta: Do watch carefully and note things that are unusual and how poll workers handle them. Don’t try to instruct or correct poll workers or otherwise intervene in how elections are run.

The training isn’t unusual for the center, co-founded in 1982 by former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter. Elections monitoring internationally has been part of The Carter Center’s operations since 1989, observing 113 elections in 39 countries.

But what’s new is doing it in The Carter Center’s hometown.

“We’re really excited to be able to bring this experience to Fulton County, here, in what is the first nonpartisan election observation effort like this, certainly in Georgia, but we think probably in the country,” Avery Davis-Roberts, the associate director of the center’s democracy program, told dozens of volunteers gathered at the center’s headquarters near downtown Atlanta.

Fulton County, which includes most of the city of Atlanta, is at the core of former President Donald Trump’s false assertions that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Election administration in the heavily Democratic county has been engulfed in strife for years, a prominent example of how elections are increasingly being questioned in America

David Carroll, director of the center’s democracy program, said center leaders have become increasingly concerned “that Americans themselves are starting to have less faith in elections, less public confidence,”

“We view nonpartisan observation as one step among many by different actors that we can do as election observers to try to bring more understanding and confidence to election processes,” Carroll said.

After the 2020 election, Carter Center officials monitored Georgia’s audit of the state’s 5 million presidential ballots that affirmed Democrat Joe Biden’s victory over Trump.

When Republicans pushed through a new election law in 2021 that allows the state to potentially take over election administration in underperforming counties, Republican lawmakers triggered an investigation that could strip local control of Fulton County elections.

Republican state officials and the Democratic-controlled county election board jointly invited the center to monitor the 2022 elections. The move could ease partisan tensions over how elections are conducted in the state and boost public confidence in the final tallies.

“We were invited by both of them but we are acting on behalf of neither of them,” Davis-Roberts said.

Volunteers are drawn from Carter Center employees and supporters, as well as members of its Georgia Democracy Resilience Network. All signed a code of conduct and were given extensive checklists to monitor election procedures, including instructions to draw diagrams of polling places. They’ve already been at work, monitoring early voting and processing of absentee ballots. They’ll fan out beginning at 6 a.m. Tuesday to many of Fulton County’s 250-plus polling places. And then observers will also monitor the counting of the ballots after polling places close.

Fulton County accounts for about 11% of Georgia’s electorate, and of the 2.5 million early votes cast through Friday, more than 300,000 of them came from Fulton. Biden won nearly 73% of the county’s votes in November 2020. He won statewide by fewer than 12,000 votes out of about 5 million cast. The county is about 45.5% white, 44.5% Black and about 7.6% people of Asian descent, according to U.S. Census data.

The county again will be key in the high-profile Senate contest between Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger Herschel Walker, and in the governor’s race between Republican incumbent Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams. The Senate race will help determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of Biden’s term.

Davis-Roberts said election monitors are not like poll watchers acting on behalf of parties or candidates

“We’re looking at the system of election administration,” she told volunteers. “We’re looking at whether policies, procedures and rules for the election are followed, and whether those rules allow for people to experience a safe, secure, accessible and fair election.”

Typically The Carter Center would issue preliminary findings days after an election, but instead expects to make a full report to state and county officials around Dec. 15. The report could contribute to the State Election Board’s decision of whether to take over Fulton County.

“The Carter Center has a long track record and we put a lot of stock into our reputation as a group that does this kind of work with a firm commitment to objectivity and a thorough data-driven analysis,” Carroll said. “So that’s what we’ll do here, like in any election that we observe.”