Some saw Fulton election problems firsthand


In the wake of a series of election errors last year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dug deep into issues surrounding the Fulton County Registration and Elections Department. By analyzing voter spreadsheets and interviewing experts, county officials, poll workers and voters, the AJC has exposed flaws in the department’s handling of elections. Last week, the State Election Board held a hearing on allegations that the county violated 15 state election laws in conducting the primary and general elections in 2012.

An investigation that found widespread problems in the Fulton County Registration and Elections Department met with anger, denial and hope for change last week. But surprise was in short supply.

Some people familiar with the department say they’ve seen firsthand many of the problems spelled out in the report, including registered voters denied their right to vote, too many others forced to cast provisional ballots and the county’s failure to properly account for those ballots.

“This has been going on ever since I got here,” said Leroy Gall, who spent eight years as a Fulton poll worker and manager before he became fed up and quit in 2011. “The same problems exist in every election.”

On Tuesday, the State Election Board heard allegations that Fulton committed at least 15 violations of state election laws during last year’s troubled primary and general elections. The board referred the matter to the state attorney general for further proceedings, and Fulton could face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, plus new training and reporting requirements.

Fulton officials say the allegations are exaggerated. But they admit the county elections department has problems to address. New Executive Director Richard Barron wants to expand early voting, improve training for poll workers and make other changes to make elections run more smoothly.

Any changes that could avoid the chaos that reigned at some precincts during the 2012 general election would be welcome. A state investigation report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution portrays an election system in disarray. Among other things, the investigation found:

  • Fulton failed to hire enough data-entry workers to process voter applications in the weeks leading up to the election. The county missed a deadline for entering those applications in an electronic registration system, so nearly 6,000 voters were relegated to a printed supplemental list distributed to poll managers. That led to confusion and long lines at the polls as workers struggled to determine whether voters were properly registered.
  • In the confusion, some registered voters were told they couldn't vote, even when they asked for provisional ballots.
  • About 9,600 Fulton voters had to cast provisional ballots — more than half of such ballots cast in the state.

Election consultant Gary Smith was not surprised by these or other findings detailed at the State Election Board meeting. Fulton hired him to assess its elections department, and he watched the botched general election unfold.

Smith said many of the problems — including the lengthy supplemental voter list and the confusion on Election Day — can be traced to the county’s decision to wait until October to hire temporary workers to process voter applications.

“That’s where the entire process was overwhelmed,” he said. “If you don’t do that part right, nothing else can go well.”

Among other things, Smith’s report also cited management problems and poor planning for the election. And he criticized Fulton’s willingness to allow voters to cast provisional ballots at any precinct, instead of encouraging them to cast a regular ballot at their own precinct.

“They have loosened the rules and regulations to the point that it’s impacting the operation of elections,” Smith said. “I know it sounds tough, buy you have to run elections under some rules and guidance to allow everybody to get the job done.”

Gall remembers getting little guidance at times when he was a poll worker.

“There’s a number you call if you have a problem,” he said. “Half the time it’s manned by a volunteer who takes a message. You’re lucky if 50 percent of the time they called you back.”

He also remembers an elderly woman who had recently become a U.S. citizen who came into his precinct to vote. She had registered and was told she could vote in the next election. But when she tried to vote, poll workers couldn’t find her in the registration system.

Gall said she tried repeatedly to resolve the problem. Each time election officials told her she’d be able to vote.

“That lady came to us on three separate elections and Fulton County still didn’t have it straightened out so she could vote,” he said.

After last year’s election problems, county officials took action. They hired Barron as the new election director last summer. He promptly fired his predecessor, who had served as interim director. Fulton officials also replaced most members of the county election board.

Barron has already revamped training for poll workers, emphasizing hands-on instruction over online courses. And he plans other changes.

He’d like to expand early voting to reduce the glut of voters on Election Day. In the November 2012 election 38 percent of Fulton voters relied on early voting; he’d like to see that rise to 65 percent.

Barron also wants to expand Fulton’s Election Day help desk to answer poll workers’ questions, recruit quality poll managers and hire workers to process registrations as early as the July before a big general election.

“There’s no way you bring in a group of people at the beginning of October to do that,” Barron said.

Smith thinks Barron has made some good decisions. But he said Fulton faces significant challenges.

Said Smith, “I’m only concerned that he’s probably more overwhelmed with the depth of the issues he’s got to deal with.”