At least two felons were allowed to vote illegally in May primaries thanks to a backlog of felon lists overseen by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.
With less than a week until the primary runoff, that backlog has left some county elections offices across the state scrambling to process unusually large lists of felons that need to be purged from voter rolls.
Sending felon lists to county elections offices is one of the duties of Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is facing Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the Republican primary runoff for governor. The state office gathers information on convictions from other state agencies and sends monthly lists of felons who have lost their right to vote to county elections offices.
The lists typically include anywhere from 100 to several hundred names, depending on a county’s size, but elections offices across the state saw felon lists dwindle over past months, a delay state officials say stemmed from a change in law that took effect last year.
Then, last month, county elections officials said they suddenly received lists of names from the secretary of state that were four or five times the usual length, leaving elections staffers struggling to process them in time.
An AJC survey this month of elections offices in 16 counties surrounding Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah shows that offices across the state were hit by the data release and that, in at least two cases, felons included in lists sent out by the Secretary of State’s Office in June were allowed to vote in the May 22 primary.
“We have never had that many people to check at one time. Never,” Cherokee County elections staffer Ann Dover said. “It was absolutely a data dump.”
Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp’s office, said the delay in reporting of felon lists stemmed from a law that moved the purview of non-incarcerated felons from the Department of Corrections to a new agency, the Department of Community Supervision.
When that agency began sending lists of felons to the state in June 2017, it included felons with special status who are allowed to vote, including first-time offenders and conditional discharge individuals. Broce said that to avoid disenfranchising those voters, Kemp’s office held off on sending the agency’s lists to counties until it could filter out those with special status — an effort that took a year, ending last month.
“The transition of that data from one agency into another was complicated and didn’t exactly pan out the way that we would have wanted it to pan out. … We are the middleman in this process,” Broce said. “But ultimately we were able to get this list processed. … Now we’re where we need to be.”
With national media attention on election “hacking,” the security of Georgia’s elections under Kemp has become a focus of the race for governor, and Cagle has criticized his opponent for his handling of voter rolls in the past.
When asked Tuesday about the delay, Kemp reaffirmed that issues arose from the creation of the new agency.
“When the governor and Cagle passed the criminal justice reform and created the new agency, they were slow — and I’m not trying to throw them under the bus — they were having issues getting some of the reports to us,” Kemp said. “It’s easy for Cagle to point fingers at things like that, but you have to be very methodical about it.”
Elections officials in Cherokee County first raised concerns to the state that felon lists seemed to be dwindling in size in March, as reported by The Cherokee Tribune & Ledger News. Felon lists provided by the Secretary of State’s Office shrank to a few dozen, and then to fewer than 10 in May, Dover said.
Despite contacting the Secretary of State’s Office with concerns, the Cherokee elections office said it didn’t hear back until June 7, when it was sent a backlog report with 837 names on it. Broce maintains that the Secretary of State’s Office has kept all counties up to date with relevant information throughout the past year.
Other county elections officials echoed the timeline described by Dover. Richmond County officials said they usually get a monthly list with 200 to 300 names, but the county received 1,194 names in the June report. Chatham County officials received a list with 2,200 names in June. Both offices said they were still processing those lists as of mid-July.
One felon was allowed to illegally vote in the May primary in Cherokee County. Another individual illegally voted in Paulding County, elections supervisor Deidre Holden said. Both incidents are under investigation by the state, and Broce said the Secretary of State’s Office plans to work with Georgia’s attorney general to bring charges before the state elections board.
Campaign officials for Cagle were quick to criticize the secretary of state for the mishap.
“Brian Kemp has failed at every responsibility overseen by the Secretary of State’s Office, and now he’s asking for a promotion to a much more important job,” Cagle campaign manager Scott Binkley said. “Doing such a poor job of updating the voter rolls that felons were allowed to illegally vote in the primary is just one more example of how he’s the worst secretary of state in Georgia’s history.”
At the gubernatorial debate hosted by Channel 2 Action News on Sunday, Kemp defended his office against Cagle’s claims that it mishandled voter data following an elections systems breach in March of 2017. Cagle also accused Kemp of failing to take responsibility for the breach.
“Despite the fake news that’s out there … we’ve never been hacked,” Kemp said during the debate. “I took responsibility for an employee that didn’t follow policies and procedures that I implemented.”
Polls will close for Georgia’s primary runoff on July 24, and early voting is already underway across the state.
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