Fulton elections missteps blamed on head office

The leaders of Fulton County’s elections department have yet to acknowledge what may have been Tuesday’s biggest blunder, that they were still printing voter lists and delivering them to precincts hours after polls opened.

That could have caused of much of voters’ frustration, such as long waits and an inordinate number of paper ballots cast unnecessarily. Such mismanagement may have disenfranchised scores of registered voters, with misinformation causing slow-moving lines and confusion about whether to stick it out at the polls.

In a report to her bosses Saturday, elections Interim Director Sharon Mitchell didn’t broach allegations by the secretary of state’s office that her department was still printing lists at 10 a.m. She declined interview requests after the meeting, and a spokeswoman issued a statement saying the department won’t answer questions until it does “a review and analysis of everything related to the general election.”

“They’re protecting their posteriors,” said Sandy Springs poll manager Sally FitzGerald, who in e-mail Saturday to Mitchell and the state said the Fulton elections main office needs to “look in the mirror” and stop blaming part-time workers for missteps.

At issue is not only the integrity of Fulton’s elections process, but also whether the state’s largest county has an elections department — budgeted at almost $9 million this year — capable of accommodating every voter.

The interim director has said in previous reports that some poll managers incorrectly directed some voters — those who were on supplemental voter lists because their registration didn’t get processed in time — to use provisional ballots when they should have been allowed to vote on touch-screen voting machines.

But if workers didn’t have complete lists, they couldn’t have known that dozens of voters who came to them were at the correct precincts. More than 11,000 paper ballots were cast throughout the county, more than double the amount in 2008, and several precincts ran out of supplies and had voters waiting for hours for them to restock.

FitzGerald, a poll worker for nine years, said an elections department worker dropped off a two-page supplemental list of voters at 11 a.m. By then, more than 500 of the 861 people who voted at the Hellenic Tower precinct on Roswell Road had already come through. FitzGerald said they handed out 46 paper ballots, which surpasses the total number the precinct has had since 2004.

“I did the best I can to do with what I was given to work with,” she said. “You can’t get (the main office) on the phone. I must have spent 10 minutes dialing three different numbers to get anyone to answer.”

Nearly 393,000 people cast ballots in Fulton. Mitchell said the department accepted about half of the provisionals — paper ballots that are counted only after voter registration information is verified — and the rest were rejected. Reasons included voters being convicted felons or living in other counties, she said.

The department has a history of elections troubles, including mishandling absentee ballots in 2008, being fined $120,000 for tossing voter records into a dumpster in 2009 and placing hundreds of voters in the wrong state House and Senate races in this year’s primary.

Questions have been raised about whether county officials and state regulators did enough to prevent another fiasco. Mitchell moved into the interim director’s position six weeks before Election Day after her predecessor, locked up over DUI-related probation violations, resigned from jail.

On Saturday the elections board certified count results, with the final count changing no race outcomes.

While that ends the election process, the county’s problems may not be over. Kemp’s office is investigating more than 100 complaints that could have Fulton in front of the State Election Board for months, possibly resulting in fines. At least two county commissioners have called for audits of the Registration and Elections Department.

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