In Georgia’s largest county, 'an army of temps' oversaw an election rife with security issues

Fulton County has used personnel agencies for years.

Published: June 24, 2021 11:31am

Updated: June 24, 2021 11:47pm

"They were doing things eagerly but incorrectly." 

That was a judgment rendered in a Georgia election monitor's report last year detailing what the investigator said were a series of problems brought on by improperly trained temporary staffers handling the absentee ballot scanning operation in Fulton County. 

Fulton, Georgia's largest county, was a key to Joe Biden's 2020 win in the state and, ultimately, the nation. The county has long been suspected as a locus of election mismanagement and incompetence. Last year's election in Fulton — which, as with the rest of the United States, included mass absentee balloting on an unprecedented scale — has continued to draw scrutiny for apparent failures of election security and protocol.

Several recent Just the News reports revealed major data issues with Fulton County's election management as well as significant and persistent security concerns highlighted by a state-appointed investigator who oversaw the Fulton absentee ballot operation. 

Among the issues underscored by that investigator, Carter Jones, were problems with temporary staffers recruited by Fulton County to manage numerous aspects of its election. 

"Some temp staff are down to help and over-eager to do so," Jones wrote at one point in his report. "[N]eed them to help less bc they're making extra problems."

In multiple cases, Jones reported on what appeared to be tension between Fulton County employees and temporary staffers, specifically those employed by Happy Faces, an Atlanta-area personnel group. 

"Shaye had issues with them not following her direction b/c they said that they were taking order from the Happy Faces rep (who was not fully trained on correct procedure) and not her," Jones wrote, claiming that the confusion had resulted in workers doing things "eagerly but incorrectly."

At one point Jones alluded to what appeared to be a potential security issue brought about by Happy Faces workers. "Learned that waiting until lunch was a powerplay by Ralph because he didn't trust the Happy Faces people," he wrote. "He had a big problem with them fixing the issue w/ Abbey's box away from the cameras this morning."

Potential link to Stacey Abrams

Happy Faces came under scrutiny this week for its apparent, but still unconfirmed connection to Georgia Democratic activist Stacey Abrams. Georgia court documents indicated that NowAccount — a microfinance company cofounded by Abrams and one in which she may still hold a financial stake — had at one point in the past had a financial relationship with Happy Faces.

Happy Faces CEO Michael Hairston this week said Happy Faces had never had any financial arrangement with NowAccount, that the group had considered an arrangement with the financial services firm but had ultimately passed. 

A representative with NowAccount gave a slightly different answer, telling Just the News that NowAccount "no longer has a relationship with Happy Faces."

The discrepancies remain unresolved. Yet Jones's notes — and his executive summary of his findings on Fulton's election process — have painted a picture of a shaky edifice constructed by Fulton County to carry out the labor of election work. 

"Fulton has leaned very heavily upon an army of temporary workers to fulfill the litany of tasks that must be completed from logistics to processing ballots to scanning final results," Jones wrote in his report. "It would perhaps be best to offset this number of workers with stakeholders from the local community who would like to get involved in the electoral process.

"By conducting multiple interviews with temporary staff, it was made clear that some have no keen interest in participating in this immensely-important process, which is perhaps to blame for some of the sloppy clerical errors and logistical shortcomings that have plagued the complicated electoral process."

"[O]thers (particularly those scanning at State Farm) are the glue that holds the entire process together," Jones added.

Those remarks were significantly more rosy than his earlier note-taking would have suggested. At one point, an election worker allegedly witnessed a conversation in an elevator, reportedly between two Happy Faces staffers, during which one of the workers revealed his intention to "f*ck sh*t up" at the ballot-scanning operation.

"What is Happy Faces doing to vet the people who they are sending to make sure that they are not sending in people who do actually want to 'f*ck sh*t up'?" Jones subsequently wrote. 

In another instance, Jones wrote that election workers had to "reorganize last night's provisional scans — all properly scanned and secured but they didn't match the originals to the [duplicates]," a SNAFU that Fulton workers allegedly blamed in part on "Happy Faces reinforcement staff." 

Interactions between Happy Faces staffers and Fulton workers were apparently so tense that at one point Fulton staff apparently turned down help from Happy Faces even when work was piling up. 

"Shaye tells Happy Faces rep to not bring in more people to finish out the night," Jones wrote at one point. "They are desperate now but not accepting help; sounds like territoriality."

Michael Hairston told Just the News this week that his group was not the only personnel organization that staffed Fulton County. "There were four other agencies at State Farm Arena," he said.

Hairston said that Happy Face's "performance was good" in the months leading up to the election, to the point that the elections director Richard Barron "asked us to manage the other agencies, and sort of keep tabs on who's where, who's reporting, who's not reporting."

He said that Happy Faces ultimately assumed a kind of supervisory administrative role over the election temp staffing operation. "Every time there were no-shows or problems, we would give the other agencies time to replace," he said. "But at Some point we ended up replacing them with people we had screened."

Hairston said the overall election workload was "pretty evenly distributed between other organizations."

Happy Faces's future with Fulton County is presently uncertain. The county's Board of Commissioners has twice since the election considered renewing the group's contract; in both cases it has declined to do so. Commissioner Liz Hausmann told Just the News on Thursday that in cases where a majority of the board is not present to vote, the commissioners can consider a measure up to three times before a final vote is accepted. 

"I have actually tried for a couple of years to stop our reliance on temp agencies," she said. "I would much prefer we go back to how we historically manned elections, with community members."

"We don't have people dedicated to our elections when we have temporary workers," she continued. "They are not as concerned about doing a quality job, in my experience. I also question about where the employees come from. Numerous folks have reached out to my office saying they wanted to get on with the staffing agency and have gotten no answer. I just question the way it's structured."'

The potential link between Happy Faces and Stacey Abrams was "very troubling," Hausman said. "I wouldn't want any political outfit to have direct contact or involvement with our elections."

At the board's June 2 meeting, Barron said Happy Faces had always "gone over and above" to assist the county since first coming aboard with them in 2015. 

Barron said the decision to first contract with Happy Faces in 2015 was motivated by the Affordable Care Act's 29.5-hour weekly threshold for full-time employee qualification. 

"With overtime demands, complying with the ACA meant we'd have to either at least double our workforce if not triple it in big elections," he said. "We needed flexibility and efficiency in the hiring process."

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