The mystery surrounding thousands of missing absentee ballot requests in DeKalb County during last fall's hotly contest gubernatorial election has led to months of finger-pointing and a renewed state investigation announced Thursday.
Allegations two weeks before the Nov. 6 contest that DeKalb's elections office had lost track of 4,700 vote-by-mail requests made national news. And even though county elections officials denied ever receiving the forms, the issue has dogged them ever since the election.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Thursday that his office would take a look at the case in hopes of determining once and for all how the vote-by-mail requests were lost. In October, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp's office said it had launched a review, but no findings were ever released. In recent days, Raffensberger's office said the investigation launched last fall was pending, but declined to offer details.
On Thursday, after the AJC’s questions, Raffensberger announced he had “opened an investigation” into the case. The release made no mention of the earlier investigation.
“There is nothing I take more seriously than guaranteeing election integrity and bringing free and fair elections to every eligible voter, whether they choose to vote absentee or on Election Day,” Raffensperger said. “My office will exhaust every resource to investigate these allegations.”
The case stemming from an episode in one of the state's most reliably Democratic counties has added to its intrigue, in part, because of the way the election played out. The Democratic Party first questioned what happened to the lost ballots in October, when Brian Kemp, a Republican, was secretary of state. He was elected governor in November, but Democrat Stacey Abrams fell just 17,000 votes short of forcing a runoff.
Abrams’ campaign had a massive statewide effort to encourage likely supporters to vote by mail, and voters sent the absentee request forms in one-by-one to election offices across Georgia. DeKalb had 13,000 mailed absentee ballot requests tracked by the Democratic Party of Georgia, and roughly 8,300 ballots were later sent to voters, according to party officials.
DeKalb was an outlier when it came to the large number of forms that were ultimately never processed, according to Lauren Groh-Wargo, who served as Abrams’ campaign manager.
"The county just denied it and said that we were making things up," said Groh-Wargo, who is now CEO for Fair Fight Action, a new organization suing in federal court to force changes in election laws. "I was just looking at cold, hard data that we had across the state."
When the Democratic Party first went public about the missing forms, its emissaries strongly suggested that the breakdown occurred after the county received the ballot requests. However, there was never any proof they arrived at the county offices.
The party tracked the absentee ballot requests to a facility that routes mail headed to the zip code of the DeKalb elections office. The trail runs cold after that. It’s unclear whether the missing ballot request forms went missing at a postal facility, at the elections office or at some other point in the delivery process.
“We’re still extremely concerned that we don’t know what happened” to the missing ballot requests, said Democratic Party of Georgia spokeswoman Maggie Chambers. “We are committed to continuing our work and doing our part to make sure the issues of last year’s election do not repeat in future elections.”
Samuel Tillman, chairman of DeKalb's elections board, said it is the Abrams campaign and the Democratic Party of Georgia who need to take responsibility. He believes that the ballots went missing somewhere in the mailing process and that potentially an out-of-state vendor hired to facilitate the absentee ballot request process is culpable.
“We did not have them,” he told county commissioners last month.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, whose district includes parts of DeKalb, was among the Democratic party leaders who complained about the missing ballot requests ahead of the gubernatorial election.
This issue and other concerns about the election process in DeKalb also caught the attention of his wife, county Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who said her office heard from many residents about problems with the process.
There was a couple whose absentee ballot requests were never processed, even though the form they filled out for their daughter was received and she got a ballot. The wife voted in-person early, but her husband’s health condition prevented him from doing so.
Commissioner Johnson also heard from students who said state and county elections officials gave them the runaround when they asked about the process of voting by mail. A Stone Mountain woman's absentee ballot was rejected for "insufficient oath information," and she didn't have enough time to fix it before the deadline.
Johnson has asked her colleagues to support a resolution that would call for an audit of the elections office, and they are expected to sign off on Tuesday.
“I feel as an elected representative it is our responsibility to be sure that we do everything that we can to ensure that all voters have an opportunity to exercise their right to vote,” she said during a meeting last month. “We should be taken proactive approaches for future elections and beyond.”
Raffensperger’s investigation was welcomed by county leaders and the state party. Tillman said Thursday that he has always been interested in getting to the truth about what happened to those the 4,700 request forms, and Chambers offered support from the Democratic Party while questioning the timing with other elections investigations pending.
“We are fully committed to making sure that every vote is counted and are happy to send the Secretary of State the same information we sent them back in October,” she said.
Story so far
In October, the Democratic Party of Georgia lodged a complaint about 4,700 missing absentee ballot requests in DeKalb County. Then Secretary of State Brian Kemp said his office would investigate, but no findings were ever released. Kemp became governor in January. Thursday, new Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that he had “opened an investigation” into the same issue.