Workers recount the votes cast in the Dec. 5 Atlanta mayoral election runoff at the Fulton County Elections Preparation Center. The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office is investigating irregularities associated with the runoff. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

State probing voting problems in Atlanta mayor’s race

The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office said Tuesday that it has launched an investigation into potential irregularities during the city of Atlanta runoff in December that yielded a narrow victory for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican candidate for governor who oversees Georgia elections, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that investigators are requesting records to conduct a forensic review of the contest. The spokeswoman, Candice Broce, declined to comment further.

The probe involves irregularities over absentee ballots in the head-to-head matchup between Bottoms and Mary Norwood in December, according to two people with direct knowledge of the investigation.

It adds to the swirl of state and federal investigations into Atlanta City Hall that are already delving into allegations of bribes, potential violations of state sunshine laws, improper credit card spending and excessive bonuses involving the previous administration.

Fulton County Director of Elections Richard Barron declined to comment on the inquiry. The mayor’s office said in a statement that it has not been formally notified of any allegation of impropriety related to the election and that it is “confident our campaign acted within the boundaries of the law.”

Elections experts said the investigation won’t likely put into question Bottoms’ victory, though it could raise new questions about voting problems during that razor-thin race.

“This simply casts another cloud over City Hall,” said Harvey Newman, a Georgia State University professor of public policy.

‘Voter intimidation’

After Norwood lost the runoff to Bottoms by 821 votes in a race in which nearly 90,000 people cast ballots, she initially sought a recount and urged voters to report “administrative problems and voter intimidation.” When she conceded in late December, she said that although there were irregularities, “it is the right thing to do to move on.”

The narrow defeat mirrored Norwood’s 2009 loss to Kasim Reed, which also led to complaints about voting irregularities. On the campaign trail last year, Norwood detailed extensively what she claimed was a widespread attempt to sink her 2009 chances.

In one meeting that was secretly recorded, Norwood said she suspected many of the voters who helped Reed win in 2009 were fraudulent, and she accused his campaign of “busing people in” who were not legitimate voters.

Reed called those claims “verifiably false” and said Norwood didn’t challenge the results in 2009 because she had no proof they were invalid. And Bottoms seized on the issue late in the campaign, accusing Norwood of using “coded language” to denigrate black voters.

In a statement Tuesday, Norwood called on state officials to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation.

“When there are concerns about elections, they should be investigated, they should be resolved, and we should have the resolution presented to the public, so that the public has confidence in the fairness of the process,” she said.

‘Wanted to vote’

The probe of potential irregularities was welcome news to Justin Wiedeman, an accountant and voting rights advocate who said that he documented cases involving 350 elderly or disabled people who were able to cast absentee ballots in November but didn’t receive them in December.

“Everyone should be able to cast a vote,” Wiedeman said. “I don’t understand why there’s any reason that justifies disenfranchisement.”

Among those was Luetta Marks-Perry, an 87-year-old retired Atlanta teacher who said she repeatedly attempted to contact the Fulton’s elections office trying to get an absentee ballot for the December runoff. Each call was fruitless, she said, leaving her unable to vote in the city’s marquee race.

“I’ve voted as far back as I can remember, but this was the first time I had a problem getting the absentee ballot,” said Marks-Perry, who suffers from dizzy spells that make it hard to leave her southwest Atlanta house. “I don’t know what happened, but it was very frustrating.”

Beverly Bush had a similar problem. She said she’s voted by absentee ballot the past three or four years and cast her vote in November for Norwood. But she didn’t receive her absentee ballot for the December runoff in time to support her candidate again.

“Of course, I was upset. I don’t know whose fault it is, but I wanted to vote,” said Bush, a retired interior designer who lives in the Peoplestown neighborhood. “I hope state investigators get to the bottom of this.”

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Channel 2 Action News reporter Aaron Diamant contributed to this article.