Fulton elections operations riddled with glitches

Voting in Fulton County was a “debacle” on Tuesday, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said, with residents casting perhaps thousands of unnecessary paper ballots that are likely to take days to count.

“They’ve got a heck of a lot of work to do,” Kemp said, noting widespread complaints that included voters dropped from voting rolls.

The mass failure could lead to an unprecedented crackdown by state officials because of repeated problems over the years. It could also give more ammunition to Republican state lawmakers, who already argue that a bloated Fulton County would run more efficiently if it ceded power to an increasing number of new cities within its borders.

Reported problems included voters not being properly listed on voter rolls, though they registered on time, as well as polling sites running out of provisional ballots — the traditional paper ballot safety net — and poll workers mistakenly not allowing voters to cast them, Kemp said. It was unclear if any voters couldn’t cast ballots because of the problems.

The state had four investigators active in Fulton — the most of any county in the state — to address complaints.

Poll managers appeared to direct some voters — those who were on supplemental voter lists because their registration didn’t get processed in time — to use provisional ballots when they should have been allowed to vote on touch-screen voting machines. Provisional ballots are paper ballots that the voters use if any part of their registration is in question. If voters provide the necessary documentation, their vote counts.

No one could say why managers did not understand the process, which is part of the training.

“We’re going to have thousands of provisionals,” said Fulton elections consultant Gary Smith. Kemp said the number of provisional ballots in Fulton likely would be “unprecedented” in the state.

Morehouse College student Ronnie Mosley, 21, said he went to vote at Archer Hall in southwest Atlanta, but a poll worker told him he wasn’t on the list of registered voters. A check of the Secretary of State’s website shows he’s been registered there since Oct. 3.

Mosley came back later in the day to cast a provisional ballot, he said, but the precinct had run out of them. He finally voted using a paper ballot around 4:30 p.m. on his third trip to the precinct.

“This is my first time voting for the president, and I tell you, I was vehemently against using a provisional ballot,” Mosley said. “The results will be in tonight. My vote will not be counted until two days from now. My vote really doesn’t count is the feeling here.”

Elizabeth Poythress, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said 174 students at the Morehouse precinct voted provisionally. She said the precinct ran out of provisional ballots from 1 to 3 p.m.

Interim Fulton elections director Sharon Mitchell said her office commandeered at least eight vehicles from the county fleet to deliver extra paper ballots and other materials to polling sites across the county.

Tuesday’s problems followed a litany of mistakes in the July primary, as well as mayhem in the 2008 presidential election. It was too early to say, however, where Tuesday’s problems fit on the scale of Fulton failures.

Four years ago, a backlog in processing absentee ballots had 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.

Fulton’s election office has had other problems as well. The elections board has been accused of passing over several applicants rated as more qualified to hire one of its own, former Fulton County Democratic Party Chairman Sam Westmoreland as its election director earlier this year.

Westmoreland had never run an elections office and had falsified parts of his resume and job application, including claims that he had experience supervising large staffs, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution later found.

For the July 31 primary election, the county mistakenly assigned hundreds of voters to the wrong state House and Senate districts after lawmakers last year redrew political lines.

In September, Westmoreland resigned after being jailed for failing to follow sentencing guidelines from two prescription drug-related DUI arrests. The elections board then named Mitchell, a former registration chief, as its interim director. It also hired Smith, a former Forsyth County elections supervisor.

But the problems continue.

Tuesday, Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann was so frustrated during a visit to Milton’s Summit Hill Elementary polling site that she demanded another machine to help check in hundreds of people already in line.

The county elections department had a budget of nearly $9 million — including an additional $6.5 million it got this year to help it improve its performance. Hausmann on Tuesday called the outcome “very frustrating.”

“They had adequate resources in place for an efficient election,” she said. “I don’t know where the breakdown was.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Staff writers Jeffry Scott and Andria Simmons contributed to this article.