HOW WE GOT THE STORY
In the wake of a series of election errors last year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dug deep into issues surrounding the Fulton County Registration and Elections Department. By analyzing voter spreadsheets and interviewing experts, county officials, poll workers and voters, the AJC has exposed flaws in the department’s handling of elections. Last week the newspaper obtained a copy of an unreleased investigation report by the Secretary of State’s Office. This story reports the results of a State Election Board hearing that focused on that investigation.
Thousands of Fulton County voters were forced to cast provisional ballots last year when they could have cast a regular ballot. Some were told — incorrectly — that they couldn’t vote at all. Others simply gave up after spending hours in a futile attempt to choose their elected officials.
An investigator listed those findings at a State Election Board hearing Tuesday, giving example after example of how he alleged Fulton County botched its 2012 general election. And though county officials say some of the investigation’s other claims are exaggerated, board members voted unanimously to refer the matter to the state’s attorney general for administrative proceedings.
Those proceedings will determine whether Fulton committed at least 15 violations of state election laws during its 2012 general and primary elections. It faces the possibility of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and perhaps some remedial lessons in how to run elections.
A settlement of the case could involve additional training and reporting requirements. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office conducted the investigation, said he hopes it’s resolved in time to help Fulton better prepare for elections next year.
Fulton officials welcomed the chance to make their case in a formal administrative hearing. They plan to present a different view of what happened last year.
“We think we are going to be able to sift through the facts and determine things that are violations and things that we regret but are not violations,” said Mary Carole Cooney, the chairwoman of Fulton’s Board of Registration and Elections.
Tuesday’s decision was the latest twist in a controversy that has dogged Fulton since last year’s elections.
In the July 2012 primary an unknown number of people may have voted in the wrong state House and Senate districts because of redistricting mistakes. Fulton officials say the outcomes of the races were not affected because they were either uncontested or the margin of victory was large enough that the improper ballots would not have made a difference.
According to the Office of the Secretary of State’s investigation report, problems were more widespread in last year’s general election, when long lines and confusion greeted voters at many precincts.
At Tuesday’s hearing, investigator Chris Harvey said a key cause was Fulton’s failure to hire enough data-entry workers to process a flood of registrations in the weeks before the general election.
That caused Fulton to miss a deadline for entering voter applications into an electronic registration system, Harvey said. That meant nearly 6,000 properly registered voters were relegated to a printed supplemental list distributed to poll managers.
Harvey said the unusually long printed list — combined with poor training and communication with poll workers — led to confusion at the polls. He said workers struggled to determine whether voters were properly registered and — in some cases — told them incorrectly they could not vote.
About 9,600 voters had to cast provisional ballots, which are counted only when election officials determine the voters are legitimate. But Harvey said paperwork was so sloppy it’s nearly impossible to know for sure exactly how many provisional ballots were cast. Among his findings:
- About 4,800 people who cast provisional ballots should have cast a regular ballot.
- Documentation of provisional ballots was riddled with errors and sometimes not used at all. In 10 precincts that Harvey examined the combined number of provisional ballots ranged from 649 to 911, depending on the documents reviewed.
- Fulton failed to notify more than 1,100 voters that their provisional ballots were not counted and why, as required by law.
Harvey found no evidence of voter fraud, but he said poor ballot security was a serious problem.
“They did not follow their own written procedures for handling provisional ballots,” he said. “The chain of custody that Fulton County had in place was virtually ignored.”
Harvey’s report accused Fulton of at least four violations of state law in connection with the primary and 11 in connection with the general election.
The State Elections Board dismissed a third case against Fulton stemming from reports that hundreds of voters were registered at addresses where buildings had been demolished. Harvey told the board it appears many of the buildings had been rebuilt, many voters there were properly registered and no one did anything wrong.
Fulton did little to rebut Harvey’s account at Tuesday’s hearing, but it has provided a detailed written rebuttal. County officials say the Secretary of State’s Office is partly to blame for the general election problems because it delivered some 3,800 voter applications after the deadline for the county to process them.
Attorney David Walbert, representing Fulton, attributed some problems to poor leadership in the county elections department. But he said the county has addressed the problem.
Former Elections Director Sam Westmoreland resigned in September 2012 after his arrest following allegations that he had violated the conditions of his probation on a 2009 charge of driving under the influence. His successor, interim Director Sharon Mitchell, was fired last summer after a new director — Richard Barron — took over. Most county election board members have resigned or been replaced.
Walbert said Fulton looks forward to presenting its own version of events at a future administrative hearing.
“We don’t want to gloss over what’s happened in the past,” he said. “Nor do we want to be accused of things that are one side of the story.”