Fulton, Gwinnett counties struggle to count absentee ballots

The most populous counties in the state, on the biggest stage imaginable, are having trouble counting their absentee ballots.

As of press time, neither Fulton nor Gwinnett counties had finished tallying their early and Election Day results.

The counties, home to nearly one out of every five Georgians, had separate issues with their mail-in voting systems.

Tuesday’s tallying issues meant there was no clear call in the state for the presidential contest and for key congressional races with consequences that could ripple across the nation.

Bianca Keaton, chair of the Gwinnett Democratic Party, said she expected a delay in knowing whether Gwinnett had helped flip Georgia to Joe Biden, but by 11 p.m., the county had not finished counting a single precinct and issues affected the count of tens of thousands of absentee ballots.

“I anticipated there might be some delay in having results, but nothing quite like this,” she said. “This is unacceptable.”

In Fulton, a broken water pipe at the ballot processing site at State Farm arena caused a delay in Fulton County’s ability to process thousands of absentee-by-mail votes Tuesday night.

Gwinnett is having a issue that is affecting at least 80,000 absentee by mail ballots. The ballots are counted in batches, and county spokesperson Joe Sorenson said about 3,200 batches have at least one ballot that can’t be read. The batches contain 50 sheets of paper, but Gwinnett’s ballot takes up two pages. Not every voter returns both pages.

Sorenson said with at least one ballot that can’t be read in each batch, the county’s elections board voted Tuesday night to scan and upload the batches as if each batch had already been checked and the ballot at issue OKed.

The ballot that can’t be read will likely be skipped in the upload, Sorenson said. He said this was the first time of the three elections since new voting machines were in use that the problem had occurred. Gwinnett is using new software to review ballots this time, he said

The elections board still intends to go back through the batches and check the ballots that can’t be read to see if a voter’s intentions are clear, a process called adjudication. But Sorenson said the decision was made to upload results now with the knowledge that the vote totals would change as they’re looked at more closely.

The broken pipe delayed the Fulton County’s counting of absentee ballots for at least two hours. As of 5 p.m., Fulton had scanned 86,191 of the 130,517 absentee-by-mail ballots received, which doesn’t include the ballots received in today’s mail, said Ralph Jones, a top Fulton elections manager.

Jones hoped to enter Wednesday with roughly 20,000 absentee-by-mail ballots to scan because county officials stopped counting at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.

No official could explain before press time why Fulton was stopping its count of absentee ballots at that time, only saying that was the procedure.

“As planned, Fulton County will continue to tabulate the remainder of absentee ballots over the next two days," said Fulton spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt, adding that they never planned to have all absentee ballots counted on Election Day.

That didn’t sit well with Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has often been at odds with Democratic-run Fulton over its elections management.

“Counties run elections and for some reason Fulton County decided that it was time to call it for the day. All the other counties — we have 123 counties that have already finished. We have about 35 counties left to go,” Raffensperger said on Channel 2 Action News. “Fulton County just decided to lay up for the day. What am I supposed to do about that? It’s really frustrating."

Raffensperger said he expects results no earlier than noon tomorrow.

“They had such a great time, they did a great job today. But now, to finish strong, they decided not to. So they’re gonna come back and pick up the process. I know many of the people that are on the ballot today would like them to finish, but it’s done," he said.

In other U.S. elections, candidates are elected directly by popular vote. But the president and vice president are not elected directly by citizens.