Xavier Benjamin fills out paperwork before voting at the South Fulton Service Center early on Friday morning, May 22, 20220. Benjamin said she arrived at the center at 6:20 am to secure her first place in line. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Absentee ballot requests go missing in Fulton ahead of Georgia primary

Absentee ballot requests from an unknown number of Fulton County voters are missing, apparently lost in the election office’s swamped email system.

Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron said he ordered an audit to find emailed absentee ballot requests that are unaccounted for.

Some affected voters might not receive absentee ballots in time for the June 9 primary. In-person voting is also available, but election officials encouraged voters to mail absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Barron thought the county cleared its backlog of absentee ballot requests Tuesday, but some voters have complained that their ballot status still has not changed on the state’s My Voter Page. The county had processed nearly 130,000 absentee ballot applications through Thursday.

“There’s going to be an oversight here and there with the volume you’re talking about,” Barron told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday.

Richard Barron, Director of Registration and Elections for Fulton County, shows the main unit of the new voting machine at Fulton County Election Preparation Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Truckloads of voting machines are arriving at a large Atlanta-area warehouse, where workers are unloading piles of cardboard boxes before a critical deadline: the March 24 presidential primary. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

There’s no way of knowing how many ballot requests the county missed. Election officials processed mailed absentee ballot request forms, but forms that voters attached to emails to the county weren’t always recorded.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, chairwoman of the Fulton legislative delegation, emailed her absentee ballot request form on April 6, nearly two months ago. The county’s elections office has no record of her ballot request, according to public election data.

“It’s a mess, and I haven’t really gotten a clear answer,” said Jordan, a Democrat from Atlanta. “Fulton County needs to do something to get out the message to folks that this affected a lot of people, possibly thousands of people.”

Ballot requests could have been overlooked in a number of simple ways, Barron said. Election workers could have made mistakes when opening emails, or they forgot to grab all the applications that were printed out. Jammed printers could also be responsible.

READ | Heavy absentee turnout seen in Georgia primary, but obstacles remain

READ | Fulton County fixing backlog of 25,000 absentee ballot applications

There’s still time to request and receive absentee ballots, but voters might not have enough time to return them by mail. The county has set up 20 ballot drop boxes under an emergency rule approved by the State Election Board in April. Ballots must be received by county election offices or deposited in drop boxes by 7 p.m. on election day. Drop box locations are posted online on Fulton County’s elections website.

Fulton has the state’s highest population but second-most absentee ballot requests processed, according to state election data. Cobb County, with 267,000 fewer registered voters, has mailed 9,000 more absentee ballots.

Janine McGrath of Roswell said she emailed her absentee ballot request April 8 but never received her ballot in the mail. She emailed her ballot request again Thursday, and an elections employee told her it would be processed.

“I don’t want to be in a situation where I could catch COVID, so I don’t want to go into the polling place,” McGrath said. “I hope people have a chance to vote. Otherwise, this is going to be a big problem.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who sent absentee ballot request forms to the state’s 6.9 million active voters, said he believes voters have time to request absentee ballots and return them.

“There was a situation in Fulton County. They have taken responsibility for their missteps, and they have done the hard work to catch up,” Raffensperger said during a press conference Thursday.

READ | Georgia elections chief asks 1M voters to return absentee ballots

READ | Metro Atlanta leaders left to make COVID-19 decisions with shaky data

Devin Price, a 46-year-old Roswell computer animator, said he sent his application on April 15. Over the weeks, he’s called and emailed to ask about the status of his ballot. As of Thursday, no one had responded to his messages.

Barron said the county’s elections office recently added 19 librarians to process applications. He doesn’t know when the audit of emailed absentee ballot requests will be completed.

Price said he knows that a county elections employee, Beverly Walker, died from COVID-19 last month, slowing absentee ballot request processing as the county’s elections office closed for two days for cleaning.

“I’m empathetic to that, but at a certain point you have to be realistic in wanting your request to be addressed,” Price said.

The Fulton elections office will start sending emails to voters when their absentee ballots are processed.

Across Georgia, over 1.5 million voters requested absentee ballots through Thursday. Nearly 655,000 voters have returned their absentee ballots, and another 118,000 have voted in person during early voting.

Barron said Fulton voters who have problems should call his office at 404-612-7060. Voters can check their absentee ballot status online at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.

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