Georgia opens 2 investigations into Fulton’s elections operations

November 4, 2020 Atlanta: Fulton County election workers started counting and scanning ballots again on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2020 as the State and the Nation waited for the results. Fulton County elections head Richard Barron said he expects results from the tens of thousands of outstanding absentee-by-mail ballots by 9 p.m. Wednesday. People across the nation are eagerly watching to see whether Fulton County home to Atlanta, the South’s crown jewel, and 1 million residents can help former Vice President Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump. There were 63,000 outstanding Fulton absentee ballots, which is about 27% of Georgia’s 236,000 uncounted absentee ballots Wednesday morning. That was enough to keep the nation biting its nails and waiting on Fulton. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
November 4, 2020 Atlanta: Fulton County election workers started counting and scanning ballots again on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2020 as the State and the Nation waited for the results. Fulton County elections head Richard Barron said he expects results from the tens of thousands of outstanding absentee-by-mail ballots by 9 p.m. Wednesday. People across the nation are eagerly watching to see whether Fulton County home to Atlanta, the South’s crown jewel, and 1 million residents can help former Vice President Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump. There were 63,000 outstanding Fulton absentee ballots, which is about 27% of Georgia’s 236,000 uncounted absentee ballots Wednesday morning. That was enough to keep the nation biting its nails and waiting on Fulton. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The Secretary of State’s office is investigating how Fulton County handled the Nov. 3 election.

Gabe Sterling, who is managing the rollout of Georgia’s new voting system, said Tuesday the state is looking into two Election Day issues: a water leak that delayed counting of absentee ballots, and Republican monitors who left their observation posts after being told all was done that night only to find out counting had continued.

Though the statewide recount is wrapping up, Sterling said initial findings from an independent monitor allegedly show “generally bad management” with Fulton’s absentee ballots. Part of the deal that put the independent monitor in place also holds Fulton responsible for a $50,000 civil fine for violations.

ExploreAtlanta voters: If you’re in Senate District 39, runoff may be confusing

It isn’t clear if these investigations, or the monitor’s early findings as laid out by Sterling, put the county at risk of being fined.

When asked Tuesday during a press briefing, Sterling said: “I’m not going to get into that right now, that’s a legal question. And I really, honestly don’t know."

As for the possible fine, Sterling added: “That’s just taxpayer money. You’re just shifting it from one bucket to another. Our main thing is we want to make sure they run elections properly.”

Fulton elections supervisor Richard Barron fired back at the state, saying their public remarks about the investigations are efforts to deflect from the criticism the secretary of state has received.

“We welcome anything they want to look at,” Barron said.

For years the Republican-led state and Democrat-run county have fought over elections, but that has only been magnified after a June 9 election cycle that was a national embarrassment with long lines and undelivered ballots.

The water leak was originally reported as a burst pipe, but days later officials corrected themselves to say it was a leaky toilet spilling water into a room with ballots early on Election Day.

“It looked really like there was rain coming out of the ceiling and the entire carpeting was just covered in water,” Fulton elections head Richard Barron said previously.

ExploreMore Fulton students learning remotely; district changes COVID reporting

As for monitors being told to go home: There was confusion about when workers processing absentee-by-mail ballots at State Farm Arena would stop. Fulton officials said work would stop at 10:30 p.m. on Election Night.

Though quickly criticized by the county chairman, Barron said he sent almost all of his staff home because some were tired to the point of being “counter-productive.” And so GOP observers left because they thought counting was done for the night. But five county workers stayed to process more ballots until 1 a.m.

11/5/20 - Atlanta, GA -  Fulton County elections director Rick Barron holds a briefing at State Farm Arena where absentee ballot processing is nearing completion.  John Spink / john.spink@ajc.com
Caption
11/5/20 - Atlanta, GA - Fulton County elections director Rick Barron holds a briefing at State Farm Arena where absentee ballot processing is nearing completion. John Spink / john.spink@ajc.com

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

The Georgia GOP was not happy. Barron has said he is aware of the mistake and that the GOP is welcome to observe, as they did during the weekend recount.

Sterling said investigators had pulled video footage from that night to determine what happened. Officials have said the state’s independent monitor was there to witness counting.

The monitor was approved the Friday before Election Day, when the State Elections Board signed a negotiated consent order with Fulton requiring the county continue to improve how it runs elections or face that $50,000 fine. The state and county agreed on Carter Jones, who spent time as a monitor in Africa helping countries improve their elections.

Sterling said Tuesday that Jones was worried about absentee ballots moving around multiple locations and has produced “several pages of reports on this stuff.”

Fulton officials have said they had multiple locations to properly socially distance because of COVID-19.

Barron said he wants a larger space so he can have all elections operations under one roof — not only because of COVID-19 but because the new voting system has much more equipment to store.

Staff writers Mark Niesse and Brad Schrade contributed to this story.

Credit: WSBTV Videos

Caption
Secretary of State sets the record straight on misinformation over Georgia election

Credit: WSBTV Videos