State investigators: Fulton election documents were altered

Recent Fulton elections embarrassments

2008: A backlog in processing absentee ballots has Fulton workers in a warehouse counting ballots for 53 hours after the presidential election ends. Crews twice go home in exhaustion, in violation of state rules requiring them to finish the count first.

2009: Fulton is fined $120,000 —- believed to be the highest fine ever levied by the State Election Board —- mostly for dumping more than 100,000 voter records, some containing private information, in a trash bin at Atlanta Technical College in 2007.

2011: Elections Director Barry Garner, viewed as making major improvements in the department, resigns. He had admitted to inappropriate conduct in a sexual harassment investigation, according to an internal county document.

July 2012: Tripped up by statewide redistricting, the department under Director Sam Westmoreland puts 690 voters in Sandy Springs and southeast Atlanta into the wrong state Senate and state House races in the primary.

September 2012: Westmoreland resigns while jailed for failing to follow sentencing terms from two DUI convictions involving prescription drugs. An AJC investigation later revealed the elections board used a flawed process to hire Westmoreland, who falsified parts of his work history.

November 2012: Fulton has more people using paper ballots than the entire rest of the state combined. Because of problems entering registration data into a computer system, poll workers can’t find many voters’ names on the rolls. The Secretary of State’s Office receives 111 complaints about Fulton, far more than any other county in the state. Poll managers said the main office was still delivering lists of eligible voters hours after polls opened.

Someone altered Fulton County voter records after last year’s presidential election, using a red pen to add names to tally sheets of voters using paper ballots and marking that their votes all counted.

Who is responsible remains a mystery, but it happened after managers from at least two precincts had signed off on the documents and submitted them to the main county elections office.

“I know for certain that these additional names were added after,” Rosalyn Murphy, who served in November as an assistant poll manager at Church of the Redeemer in Sandy Springs, told the State Election Board during a hearing Thursday focusing on the performance of the county’s elections office. “That doesn’t even look like our handwriting.”

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is investigating more than 100 voter complaints against the county from last year, said the evidence points to possible document tampering and calls into question the vote totals Fulton reported. His chief investigator, Chris Harvey, revealed the suspect records during the fact-gathering hearing.

The scope of the problem with altered documents, and the significance, remain to be seen, but it’s another troubling aspect of the county’s failure to accommodate all its voters during a major election.

Previously, most of the complaints already aired against the county focused on what appeared to be mismanagement that inconvenienced voters, causing some to give up on their opportunity to vote after lengthy waits in line.

If somebody who handled the documents was found to have altered them to cover their tracks, the case could move into the criminal realm, including potential charges of voter fraud.

The board will ultimately decide whether to dismiss charges against the county, impose sanctions or refer cases to the state Attorney General’s Office for possible prosecution. Kemp, who also serves as chairman of the State Election Board, said he and his investigators will pore over the testimony they heard Thursday, examine documents they just obtained through subpoenas, press for explanations, then hold another board meeting on the matter.

“Obviously, it appears that the documents were altered after the poll workers signed it,” Kemp said. “Nobody today really fessed up that, ‘Yes, I did that and here’s the reason why.’ “

Fulton’s interim elections director, Sharon Mitchell, said she was blindsided by the evidence Thursday, having not seen those tally sheets previously. She and David Walbert, the attorney for the county Registration and Elections Board, said they could not speak to why someone would have added names to voter records.

Walbert said the state’s investigation, which has involved requests for stacks of documents, has tied up the department’s staff of 15 at a time when it should be preparing for this year’s mayoral election and making improvements recommended by consultant Gary Smith.

Smith, in a report to the county board, blamed much of the mismanagement last year on poor decisions by former Elections Director Sam Westmoreland, who resigned in September while jailed for failing to follow sentencing terms from two convictions of driving under the influence involving the use of prescription drugs.

At Church of the Redeemer, poll workers had written 15 voters’ names on their provisional ballot recap form. Five other names were added, written in reverse alphabetical order. Harvey said he checked with those voters, and they said they didn’t cast paper ballots but voted on touch-screen machines.

More names were added to the forms at the Atlanta Job Corps Center, also in reverse alphabetical order.

“The odds seem very unlikely that people would come in to vote in reverse alphabetical order,” Harvey said.

Because of a backlog in entering voter registration data, Fulton had more people using paper ballots than the entire rest of the state combined. About 9,000 people cast paper ballots, and about 6,000 of those were counted as valid.

County Elections Chief Dwight Brower, one of Mitchell’s top assistants, said Thursday that 19 precincts ran out of ballots on Election Day, and one poll worker said it took five to six hours for the main office to restock her precinct.

That created long lines as voters who couldn’t use touch-screen machines — because their names didn’t appear in records — had to wait for paper ballots. Annie Johnson, who served as a poll manager at the Atlanta Job Corps Center, said about a dozen voters gave up and left.

“I think it’s easy to infer that people were denied the right to vote,” State Election Board member L. Kent Webb told Fulton officials. Kemp has called Fulton’s situation in November a “debacle,” and he said Thursday that such shoddy record-keeping could be disastrous if Fulton ever became the focal point of a close national election.

“These are not small issues,” he said. “These types of things are what sack public confidence in the process.”

Mary Norwood, a former Atlanta city councilwoman and former mayoral candidate whom the local Republican Party recently appointed to the Fulton elections board, called the altered records “unbelievable.”

“I think that is very troubling,” she said. “And I felt very concerned, and very sorry for the persons who had filled out the form correctly, and then all these names just appear.”