Both state and Fulton County officials have known for years about scores of voters still registered at now-demolished Atlanta public housing projects, but efforts to fix the problem came too late to clean up the rolls in time for the presidential election.
The county has come up with a plan for protecting against voter fraud, but because of flaws in its database of suspect names and addresses, some residents who never lived in the defunct complexes could be forced to prove where they live, raising concerns that legitimate voters could be dissuaded from casting ballots.
Another worry is that, with turnout at its highest, hundreds of voters could cast ballots in the Nov. 6 election using vacant lots for addresses. At least 40 people with questionable addresses have voted in various Fulton elections since late 2009, when the problem came to light following the mayoral runoff between Mary Norwood and victor Kasim Reed, an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
While the numbers probably aren’t enough to skew any race results, the lingering issue raises more questions about the integrity of Fulton County’s polling process.
“This is of extreme concern to us,” Fulton Republican Party Chairman Roger Bonds said, “because we assume that this is just one example. We would assume that there are many inaccuracies in the database.”
Since the Registration and Elections Board can’t purge voters within 90 days of a federal election and missed its window, the county will give provisional ballots to anyone whose name and address is on the watch list, board members and Interim Director Sharon Mitchell told the AJC.
The burden of proof will fall on voters if they want their ballots counted, and they will have until the Friday after Election Day to bring documents to the elections office verifying that they live where they say they live, Mitchell said.
Those who have moved within the county, but didn’t update their registration, would still be entitled to have their votes counted. Despite repeated requests from the AJC, the department did not provide information on what documents can be used to prove residence.
“It is a conundrum, a terrible situation,” Elizabeth Poythress, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said. “I am sad and disheartened that they didn’t clean up this list sooner.”
Because of sloppy data management, the process could ensnare some residents who never lived in public housing and never moved from their homes, yet for unexplained reasons appear on a list of nearly 1,100 voters that Fulton elections staff concluded are registered at empty lots.
The AJC obtained the database through an open records request and found more than 140 people whose addresses, Fulton County property records indicate, are private residences.
Had the entire list been purged from the rolls, as some elections board members contemplated earlier this year, those people would have been disenfranchised. Now they could face paperwork hurdles when they go to vote.
“My lot is not vacant, because I’m sitting inside my house right now,” said 77-year-old Ethel Parks, whose address appears with those of former residents of the demolished MLK Highrise, which once sat across the street from Parks’ home on Whitehall Terrace. “I’ve been voting ever since 1964, so now why do they want to take me off?”
Elections Board member Stan Matarazzo said it’s not practical right now to sort through which addresses should or should not be on the list. “There’s not time to do it any other way,” he said.
The addresses mostly correspond to 13 low-income housing complexes that no longer exist. Mixed-income communities that incorporate public housing units were later built at some of those locations, so it is likely there are voters on the list who reside in the new communities. But, apparently, none of the people on the list responded to letters mailed out in June asking them to prove where they live.
While the AJC’s analysis found private homes, it also found cases of people casting ballots while registered at empty lots.
For example, 23 people have cast ballots during the past three years registered at addresses in the old Thomasville Heights complex, which Atlanta Housing Authority records show was vacated in July 2009. In the same time period, eight people cast ballots using addresses in Hollywood Courts, emptied in August 2009.
Seven people voted while still registered at Bankhead Courts, vacated in June 2009, and five people have cast ballots using the former address of the MLK Highrise, vacated in 2008.
Razed housing and elections became entangled after Norwood lost to Reed by 714 votes and her supporters complained to the secretary of state’s office that 1,314 ballots had been cast from addresses of emptied and demolished buildings.
The group later retracted the claim, and an investigation found only a dozen possibly illegal votes.
While Fulton Elections Board Chairman Roderick Edmon doubts many people will try to vote in this election with old public housing addresses, he agreed that eligibility questions should have been resolved before a presidential election year. He said part of the problem is that, since 2009, the department has had two directors — one forced to resign over sexual harassment allegations, the other resigning last month after he landed in jail for failing to follow sentencing terms from two prescription-drug-related DUI arrests.
“There was major upheaval, as far as the leadership, and nobody had their eye on this issue,” Edmond said. “There needs to be a more thorough investigation, and that can’t happen right now.”
Fulton’s elections department has fallen under heavy scrutiny after a series of balloting errors in the July primary and the resignation of former director Sam Westmoreland in September. Also of concern is that after slow processing and mishandling of absentee ballots marred the last presidential election, Fulton was slapped with a $120,000 fine, believed to be the highest ever levied by the State Election Board.
The secretary of state’s office has several open investigations involving Fulton, including one of potential voter list errors and the county’s handling of them.
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AJC database specialist John Perry contributed to this article.