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 poring over documents, analyzing voter spreadsheets and interviewing experts, county officials, poll workers and voters, the AJC has exposed flaws in the department’s handling of elections. This story sheds light on the difficulty Fulton and other metro Atlanta counties are having with the state’s new voter database, and what that means for voters heading to the polls this fall.
Elections chiefs for several metro Atlanta counties are warning that glitches in the state’s new voter registration system could cause frustrations for voters when polling starts in four weeks.
Data entry is more cumbersome, they say, and the new software often puts streets and houses on the wrong sides of district lines, which have been adjusted to account for the 2010 census.
“It’s very, very complex,” DeKalb Elections Director Maxine Daniels said. “We’re just concerned about how this is going to come together before November.”
Some county officials are concerned that voters could cast ballots in the wrong council races or get blocked from using touch-screen machines because precinct workers can’t find them in their computers.
Problems have already cropped up in the first jurisdiction to use the new system — Macon-Bibb County, which is holding an election Tuesday to pick the leaders of its newly consolidated government. During early voting, dozens of people cast ballots in the wrong commission races, and lines stalled for hours as poll workers checked addresses against district maps.
The Secretary of State’s Office started moving all 159 counties onto ElectionNet late last year, after spending $2.6 million to replace an antiquated program that had been in use since 1995. It’s not clear if the state’s software is to blame or if some other problem, such as user error, is plaguing Macon-Bibb, said Merle King, executive director of Kennesaw State University’s Center for Election Systems.
However, both the state and the software provider, Connecticut-based PCC Technology Group, acknowledged some problems with the software, saying they’re working feverishly to make fixes before early voting starts statewide on Oct. 14.
“We have people working around the clock to resolve these issues,” PCC Technology President Joe Singh said.
Wide-scale data problems could cast doubt on winners of close contests in hundreds of Georgia cities, leaving taxpayers on the hook for recounts or protracted litigation. Long lines could cause voters to give up and leave their precincts without casting their ballots.
“The question will be whether it’s on a scale that’s disruptive to the voting process,” said King.
At a meeting last week organized by Daniels, the heads of nine counties’ elections offices talked out about ElectionNet’s shortcomings. The system requires more keystrokes to enter data, increasing chances of human error. It took two data entry screens to key in voters before; now it takes seven screens, Daniels said.
No director seems as frustrated as Rick Barron, who recently took over Fulton County’s troubled elections office. He told the chairwoman and vice chairman of his oversight board last week that ElectionNet is making his mission of overhauling the department before fall elections even tougher.
“No one has any confidence in this system,” Barron said of Daniels’ meeting in DeKalb, which also attended by representatives of Athens-Clarke, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Forsyth, Hall and Rockdale counties. “There’s a few that will not go on record because they are afraid of the state. I’m past that.”
Despite being the state’s largest county, and having the elections office most prone to errors in recent years, Fulton was the last to link into the new system, giving Barron’s staff less time to work out kinks. Jared Thomas, spokesman for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said Fulton would have been added a month earlier, but the interim director who preceded Barron asked for multiple delays.
Fulton will run mayoral and city council elections for Atlanta and nine other cities, plus races for the Atlanta school board. Barron is particularly concerned because, during last year’s primary, nearly 700 voters in Sandy Springs and southwest Atlanta cast ballots in the wrong state Senate and state House races. The elections board decided that the incorrect ballots weren’t enough to have swayed any election results.
In November, slow processing of voter registration required Fulton to use more paper ballots than the rest of the state combined.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office has opened investigations into last year’s problems in Fulton.
“They make it seem like we’re the only county with a problem,” Barron told elections board members last week. “We found out (at Daniels’ meeting) that we’re not the only ones with a problem.”
Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler said her department has made numerous reports to the state about ElectionNet problems, including data entry fields not accepting full addresses. The system has also been unable to produce precinct cards for voters affected by redistricting, so Cobb will be sending letters telling them where to vote, she said.
Eveler said she’ll be stocking precincts with 50 provisional paper ballots instead of the usual 25, as a precaution.
Thomas, of Kemp’s office, said the changeover began under his boss’ predecessor, former Secretary of State Karen Handel.
“Any time you move 159 counties to a new system, kinks are going to develop,” Thomas said. “What we are finding is that, during any transition process, there are things that need to be addressed, and we are doing that right now.”