Fulton County disputes vote tampering allegations

Recent Fulton elections troubles

2008: A backlog in processing absentee ballots has Fulton workers in a warehouse counting ballots for 53 hours after the presidential election ends. Crews twice go home in exhaustion, in violation of state rules requiring them to finish the count first.

2009: Fulton is fined $120,000 — believed to be the highest fine ever levied by the State Elections Board — mostly for dumping more than 100,000 voter records, some containing private information, in a trash bin at Atlanta Technical College in 2007.

2011: Elections Director Barry Garner, viewed as making major improvements in the department, resigns. He had admitted to inappropriate conduct in a sexual harassment investigation, according to an internal county document.

July 2012: Tripped up by statewide redistricting, the department under Director Sam Westmoreland puts 690 voters in Sandy Springs and southeast Atlanta into the wrong state Senate and state House races in the primary.

September 2012: Westmoreland resigns while jailed for failing to follow sentencing terms from two DUI convictions involving prescription drugs. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation later revealed the elections board used a flawed process to hire Westmoreland, who falsified parts of his work history.

November 2012: Fulton has more people using paper ballots than the entire rest of the state combined. Because of problems entering registration data into a computer system, poll workers can't find many voters' names on the rolls. The Secretary of State's Office receives 111 complaints about Fulton, far more than any other county in the state. Poll managers said the main office was still delivering lists of eligible voters hours after polls opened.

Digging deep

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporters have scrutinized problems with Fulton County’s elections process for months, analyzing stacks of data and interviewing experts, poll workers and voters. In today’s article, Fulton County interim Elections Director Sharon Mitchell addresses troubling documents revealed at last week’s State Elections Board hearing.

Fulton County’s interim elections director denies her staff tampered with polling records by adding dozens of voters’ names to tally sheets last year. It wasn’t fraud, Sharon Mitchell says, but correcting mistakes.

But Secretary of State Brian Kemp maintains the county’s actions were likely illegal. Not only did the department’s missteps cause more people to use paper ballots than the entire rest of the state combined, Kemp says the county also mishandled those ballots in the aftermath and may have counted some votes twice.

Documents unveiled by a state investigator last week showed someone used a red pen to add more than 50 names to the list of people using paper ballots at one precinct and five names to the list from another precinct.

The changes occurred after poll managers had signed off on the documents and submitted them to the main county elections office. An assistant poll manager at Church of the Redeemer in Sandy Springs said she didn’t recognize the names or the handwriting.

In a prepared statement, Mitchell said the tally sheets “were working documents that had not been completed correctly at the precincts.”

“It was legal and appropriate for our staff to correct them to ensure that they reflected what took place on Election Day,” Mitchell said.

Kemp disagrees. In a written rebuttal Monday, he said Fulton officials have provided no documents to support their assertion that they were merely correcting mistakes, and dismissing the alteration of official, legally required election documents as corrections is unacceptable.

While his investigation is focusing on isolated irregularities, he says he’s concerned they could be indicative of broader problems. Whether or not they’re illegal, they at least show general sloppiness in handling the election.

“It is clear that five names were added to the (Church of the Redeemer precinct) list of provisional voters to falsely show that these people voted provisional ballots,” Kemp said. “This is coupled with the fact that each voter got credited with two votes in the same election.”

In an interview Monday, Mitchell said the five voters did not cast multiple ballots because her system wouldn’t allow that.

Her elections chief, Dwight Brower, said the voters initially asked to cast provisional ballots but ultimately decided to go to their assigned polls, where they officially voted. Brower said paperwork from their provisional ballots should have been voided.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “that didn’t happen.”

Mitchell and her top assistants could not explain the documents during a hearing the State Elections Board held Thursday to examine Fulton’s performance in conducting the November election.

She said Monday that employees who modified the records later were not trying to cover anything up, which was why they used red ink. She said her office will continue to provide information to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Kemp, who is investigating more than 100 complaints against the county, presided over the 5-hour hearing. His investigator revealed documents with inconsistent vote counts, forms not filled out properly and a poll worker writing her own name on ballot envelopes instead of voters’ names. Other evidence showed that voters who registered on time had to use provisional ballots, and voters who registered after the deadline still were allowed to cast ballots.

Because of a backlog in entering registration data, poll workers couldn’t find many registered voters’ names in computers, so they weren’t allowed to use touch-screen machines. The county used so many paper ballots that some precincts ran out and had to wait to be restocked.

One poll manager confirmed that long lines caused by the shortage prompted some people to give up and leave without voting.

Since 2008, Fulton has suffered a series of elections fiascoes and embarrassments. Kemp has said that unless the office can be shaped up, a close local, state or national race could be disastrous.

His investigation continues. The State Election Board will ultimately decide whether to dismiss charges against the county, impose sanctions or refer cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible prosecution.

The scope of the problem with altered documents, and the significance, remains to be seen. The hearing looked at just 10 of the county’s 348 precincts. Kemp cited “alarmingly large” discrepancies in the numbers of provisional ballot envelopes and the names of recorded and added provisional voters.

“Additional names added in red at other precincts are still a concern,” he said.

If someone who handled documents is found to have altered them to cover their tracks, criminal charges could follow.

Most of the new names appeared in reverse alphabetical order, and Harvey commented that it’s unlikely people came in to vote in that order.

Kemp said county elections officials have not provided documents detailing what happened with the five Sandy Springs voters.

Mitchell said the department “may have to improve processes and improve what we do.”