Thousands of provisional ballots remain uncounted in Fulton County

The wait time to vote at the Pittman Park precinct in Atlanta was reported to be three hours. Pizza and snacks were donated for the people waiting in line. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
The wait time to vote at the Pittman Park precinct in Atlanta was reported to be three hours. Pizza and snacks were donated for the people waiting in line. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Fulton County could have as many as 4,700 votes left to count as several hotly contested Georgia races remain too close to call.

Richard Barron, the county’s director of registration and elections, said Wednesday that employees are researching about 3,700 provisional ballots that were cast on Tuesday. Additionally, there are about 1,000 overseas ballots that are outstanding. To be counted, they must arrive by 5 p.m. Friday. The provisional ballots will be counted Friday, and the election will be certified next week.

Once the election is certified, candidates will have three days to request a recount.

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The deadline to count provisional ballots is Friday.

A day after the election, the governor's  race remained in limbo, with Secretary of State Brian Kemp declaring victory and Democrat Stacey Abrams vowing to hang in the race until every vote is counted.

A number of other races could result in a recount, including the 6th District Congressional contest between Republican Rep. Karen Handel and Lucy McBath. McBath, a Democrat, was ahead by fewer than 3,000 votes as of Wednesday afternoon, and the margin was less than 1 percent.

Some of the provisional ballots in question were cast at three Atlanta precincts that were ordered by a judge to remain open late. Votes cast by people who joined the line after the normal 7 p.m. close were required to be provisional, the Fulton elections director said, so they could be separated from other votes if the judge’s order is overturned.

Barron said he did not know how many of the total provisional ballots came from those precincts.

One, Pittman Park Recreation Center, stayed open until 9 p.m. Barron said the county made a mistake when it delivered three voting machines to that location instead of eight. In a Wednesday affidavit, he said a spreadsheet that helps determine how many machines each location gets had 886 voters listed for the precinct. In reality, 3,801 voters are registered to vote there.

The error was fixed by 11 a.m., when more machines were added, but in a letter to Barron sent Tuesday, attorney C. Allen Garrett Jr. said an election protection group “continued to receive reports of continued extreme delays” well into the afternoon. The letter asked Barron to extend the voting hours.

Garrett sent a similar letter regarding two other polling locations: Booker T. Washington High School and Archer Hall at Morehouse College. He asked the county to hold those precincts open until 10 p.m.

Barron said because the county opened precincts on time and voting was available continuously, he did not have the ability to extend voting hours. A county judge signed orders requiring all three precincts be open later.

The issue at Booker T. Washington and Archer Hall, Barron said, was college students. Many were registered to vote elsewhere, but insisted on filling out provisional ballots where they were. Barron said there were so many people filling out provisional ballots at the high school that the precinct ran out of them and had to print more.

“I think it’s setting a bad precedent for the future,” Barron said of the efforts to keep those three locations open later. “It seemed to be judicial activism.”

Barron said when so many people come out to vote, “you’re going to have some hitches.”

Complaints at those locations of voters being turned away, he said, came from an election protection group that saw some students leaving the line after volunteers from another voter rights group told potential voters where they were actually registered.

Barron said when people vote provisionally, only the portion of their ballot that is the same in the location they’re registered in and the location they’re voting in — such as statewide contests — will count. Therefore, voters are encouraged to go to their home voting location so their entire ballot will be valid.

Fulton County finished counting ballots just after 2 a.m. In part, Barron said, delays in reporting came from the need to keep some precincts open late. There were also issues with a plan to accumulate votes on one voting card per polling location. In some places, the accumulation was done improperly and each individual card had to be uploaded. In other instances, the Fulton County employees who had volunteered to do the work didn’t show up at the end of election night.

Barron also said the county normally uploads votes via modem from several election centers, but after a request from the Secretary of State’s office, used couriers to bring the voting cards to a central location to upload results.

Additionally, Barron said, the county had long lines in some locations because it had access to about 1,000 fewer voting machines than normal. About 300 were used for early voting, and cannot then be used on Election Day, while 700 have been sequestered as part of a federal lawsuit.

Still, Barron said, Election Day largely went well.

“It was a crazy day, but exhilarating, with challenges and lessons,” he said. “The day was positive, I thought. We had really good participation.”

Not everyone agreed. In addition to the lawsuits that were filed, Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann questioned the lateness of the county’s returns.

“It continues to give us a black eye,” she said.

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