Many fed up with Fulton elections problems

What went wrong:

  • Possibly thousands of voters who should have been allowed to use touch-screen machines instead had to use paper provisional ballots, meaning their votes are still being counted. Their voter registration information wasn't entered into a database in time to appear in the computer system used by poll workers, and although their names appeared on supplemental lists, poll workers didn't know they were entitled to use touch screens.
  • With an inordinate number of provisional ballots being handed out, several precincts ran out of provisional ballots, leaving voters to wait for hours until they could be restocked. Poll watchers and voters reported it happening at Morehouse College's Archer Hall and the Adamsville Recreation Center in southwest Atlanta.
  • Technical problems and an insufficient number of check-in and voting machines were blamed for long, slow-moving lines in north Fulton, including precincts in Sandy Springs and Johns Creek.

Another Fulton County election brought another nightmare for voters Tuesday, and now comes the reckoning.

The state is continuing to investigate and respond to new complaints — about “75 and rising,” according to Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp — of poll workers having trouble locating people on voter rolls, even though they registered in time; wrongly steering some voters to provisional ballots — paper ballots that are counted only after voter registration information is verified; and denying those ballots to others.

An unknown number of precincts ran out of the provisional ballots and possibly disenfranchised voters who gave up and left.

“Given the constant and systemic nature of election failures in Fulton County, I think that every option for remediation of Fulton County elections should be on the table moving forward,” Kemp said Wednesday.

Those options include changing state law to give Kemp’s office the authority to more quickly intervene in what he has called a “debacle.”

Fulton officials acknowledged that as many as 11,000 voters cast paper ballots in Tuesday’s election, an untold number of them unnecessarily. By comparison, Gwinnett County had about 1,500.

Because of the large number of paper ballots, Fulton is still days away from a final tally in Tuesday’s presidential election.

The state had four investigators active in Fulton on Election Day — the most of any county in the state — to address complaints. But Kemp said most of the problems, such as registered voters not appearing on voting rolls and poll workers not checking supplemental lists, could not be resolved by anyone other than Fulton officials.

“We sent multiple emails to Fulton election officials through the course of the day to apprise them of problems that we were encountering. Poll workers complained to our staff that they could not communicate with Fulton election officials and could not get technical help on site when requested,” Kemp said.

“While we made every attempt to provide support and guidance, the law does not allow us to run any county’s elections for them,” he said. A spokesman said Kemp will consider asking lawmakers to change the law.

According to poll observers, dozens of voters may have been affected. At the Adamsville Recreation Center in southwest Atlanta, Fulton County League of Women Voters President Cecilia Houston-Torrence said she would estimate, conservatively, that at least 50 people didn’t get to vote.

The group had a poll watcher stationed there who said the precinct twice ran out of provisional ballots. Many residents of the neighborhood rely on public transportation and couldn’t afford to miss work by waiting for hours or making return trips to the center, Houston-Torrence said.

“It was just sheer frustration,” said Vernetta Nuriddin, the Fulton league’s vice president of voter services. “It was just a bad, bad, bad situation.”

Page Gleason, executive director of ProGeorgia, said she talked one man out of leaving the line at another southwest Atlanta precinct at Morehouse College’s Archer Hall.

“I’m very concerned about the people that voted provisional and making sure their votes get counted,” she said. “But I’m also concerned about the people who went there and tried their best and were unable to vote in this election.”

But Fulton elections Interim Director Sharon Mitchell defended her department and said workers “stood the test.”

“Every voter had an opportunity to cast a ballot today,” she said Tuesday. “At the end of the day, we feel that we had a successful election.”

It’s not clear how many of the 11,000 provisional ballots were filled out by legitimately-registered voters who should have been allowed to use touch-screen machines.

Mitchell has declined interview requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On Friday, she told the elections board, her department had still not keyed in about 6,000 registration applications. That was the last day those voters could be put into the computer system that workers could check at the polls.

However, the names were compiled over the weekend into supplemental lists, which were given to poll workers with instructions that those voters be allowed to use touch-screen machines.

Some poll managers, however, made those voters use provisional ballots, Mitchell said.

She told Fulton County commissioners on Wednesday that each precinct was stocked with 50 provisional ballots. With poll workers handing more of them out than necessary, they depleted their supplies, leaving voters waiting for hours before their precincts could be restocked.

Elections board Chairman Roderick Edmond told reporters that, in a county the size of Fulton, elections mistakes are bound to happen. He praised the work of Mitchell, who came into the interim director’s position just six weeks ago.

Edmond said he welcomed an investigation by the secretary of state’s office.

“There were errors,” he said, “but it wasn’t significant errors. It wasn’t a debacle like it was four years ago.”

In 2008, a backlog in processing absentee ballots had Fulton workers in a warehouse counting ballots for 53 hours after the election ended. Crews at the time twice went home in exhaustion, in violation of state election rules requiring them to finish the count first.

Fulton was later fined $120,000 — believed to be the highest ever levied by the State Election Board — mostly for being caught dumping the records of more than 100,000 voters, including some private information, in a dumpster at Atlanta Technical College in 2007.

Several commissioners praised also praised Mitchell on Wednesday, blaming criticism from Tuesday on a biased news media.

“Don’t worry about the haters and the detractors,” Commission Vice Chair Emma Darnell said. “They always lose.”

But commissioner Liz Hausmann expressed criticism, telling Mitchell that north Fulton didn’t have enough precincts and voting machines to accommodate voters who stood in lines for hours, sometimes making multiple trips to polls before voting.

Mitchell said any voters who used paper ballots Tuesday and weren’t given instructions on how to make sure their votes count should call the elections department at 404-730-7072.