Thousands of Fulton County voters did not get notice of polling change

When Harry Hollingsworth went to New Prospect Elementary to cast his vote in the presidential primary in Fulton County March 1, there was nowhere to vote.

A hand-lettered sign directed him to Georgia State University, Hollingsworth said. But he would have preferred to get a card in the mail telling him his voting location had changed before he drove to the school.

The card eventually came March 15 — two weeks after Hollingsworth had voted.

“I was irritated,” he said.

Thousands of Fulton County voters didn't get the precinct cards when they were supposed to, or at all, said Richard Barron, the county's director of Elections and Registration. On election day, that led to complaints from residents who went to vote at one precinct only to find that their precinct had moved.

In addition to those cards that arrived late, like Hollingsworth’s, about 850 precinct cards were delivered to polling locations instead of residents. And Barron said the county had between 30,000 and 40,000 precinct cards that were returned, with addresses that appeared to be good. As of March 1, there were 685,503 registered voters in the county.

The Secretary of State's office has opened an investigation, said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the state office. The U.S. Postal Service is also looking into it, spokesman Rick Badie said in a statement.

“The agency prides itself on safe, swift mail delivery,” he wrote. “This matter is under investigation and any issues that originated on our end and resulted in the return of correctly-addressed precinct cards will be handled properly.”

Barron said some of the incorrect deliveries may have resulted from the card’s layout. Printed by the state, it includes three addresses: the recipient’s, the voter registration office’s and the polling place. The polling place is the only address that appears on the card twice.

Barron speculated that the postal service’s machines might have picked up incorrect addresses when the cards were being scanned for delivery. He has considered sending letters in envelopes when precincts change, in addition to the postcards. The problem, he said, affected a “significant amount of voters.”

“We want to make it easy,” he said. “This precinct card thing caused us the most angst. All of our complaints were pretty much rooted in this.”

In years past, Fulton County has dealt with a plethora of elections-related issues. The county paid $180,000 in civil penalties and to reimburse the state for an investigation into the 2012 election. Then, nearly 10,000 residents cast provisional ballots because their names weren’t on registration lists at the polls. Hundreds of ballots were mishandled. And the ballots of 11 eligible voters were improperly rejected.

Since December 2014, Fulton County mailed out about 255,000 precinct cards, said Ralph Jones, who is in charge of registration for Fulton County elections. They’re sent when people move or register to vote for the first time, and when the county moves a voting precinct. In the past 15 months, 81 precincts have changed.

About 60,000 precinct cards were returned to the county over that period, Jones said. In the past, the department would simply box the returned cards up and warehouse them for the two-year holding period required by the state.But with additional manpower, Jones said, he started checking the addresses on returned cards against the county’s geographic information system. The county tested the addresses of 400 returned cards and found that half of them had valid addresses.

Badie, with the USPS, said the county may have had more returns than neighboring counties because “Atlanta is a transient community.” Therefore, he said, “some of the addresses may not have been valid, but deemed ‘undeliverable’ for a host of reasons.”

In DeKalb County, cards are sometimes delayed or delivered to precincts instead of people, but not to the extent that was seen in Fulton, said Maxine Daniels, the county’s director of registration and elections. She said the post office “doesn’t always put the highest priority” on the 4-by-5-inch postcard with voting information.

“It doesn’t look like important mail, so it doesn’t get treated like important mail,” she said. “It’s not unusual to get complaints from voters that didn’t get their cards on time.”

Cobb and Gwinnett counties also didn’t have delivery problems to the extent that Fulton did, representatives from each county said. The cards are sent first class, and so should be delivered in three business days.

Hollingsworth, whose precinct card said it had been issued Feb. 2, estimated the detour to his normal voting location added more than an hour to the time it took him to cast his ballot. He said others had the same problem. The delay didn’t stop him from voting, but others may not have had the time to spend.

“It leads one to believe somewhere, someone is not being quite accurate in their accounts,” he said. “You sort of say, OK, another government screw-up, and you press on.”