Five fraud claims: What investigators found

Gabriel Sterling talks with the press at the State Capitol Monday, January 4, 2021.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Gabriel Sterling talks with the press at the State Capitol Monday, January 4, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Former President Donald Trump and his supporters have made many allegations of voting fraud in Georgia. Investigators determined there was no evidence to support them. Here’s a look at what investigators found about five fraud claims:

Tens of thousands of illegal votes

Trump claimed tens of thousands of ineligible voters cast ballots in Georgia. He alleged that some had moved out of state. Others were supposedly dead or underage or otherwise ineligible to vote.

The allegations were based on research that compared Georgia voter records with information contained in other databases. For example, to find dead voters, Trump’s analysts said they matched the names and birth dates of voters to those of people contained in death records. They also compared voting records with change-of-address records to find voters who apparently had moved out of state.

Election experts took a close look at the analysts’ work and found it “highly inaccurate,” “unreliable” and “worthless.” They said the researchers relied on incomplete data and flawed methods.

For starters, matching people between large databases is prone to error. Databases of millions of people are bound to include different people with the same names and birth dates. And publicly available voter data includes only a person’s birth year, making such matches even more dubious.

That and other flaws yielded wildly exaggerated findings of fraud. For example, one Trump analyst concluded that 10,315 dead Georgians voted in the November 2020 election. When the secretary of state’s office investigated, it found four dead voters.

Trump’s other claims also wilted under scrutiny. For example, he claimed people who cast ballots included 66,247 underage teenagers and 2,423 others who were not registered to vote. In both cases, state investigators found the actual number was zero.

The experts said Trump’s research was flawed in other ways. For example, it didn’t account for the fact that it’s perfectly legal for many people to move out of state temporarily but still vote in Georgia. Among those living elsewhere who are still eligible to vote in Georgia: college students, military personnel, “snowbirds” with vacation homes and people on temporary work assignments.

Federal law also allows people to cast absentee ballots in presidential elections in their old state if they move and cannot establish residency in time to vote in their new state.

The bottom line: Investigators find a small number of illegal votes in every election. According to The Associated Press, the Georgia attorney general’s office is reviewing about 20 cases stemming from all elections in 2020, including the June primary.

State investigators say they have not found anywhere near enough fraud cases to put in doubt Biden’s 11,779-vote victory in Georgia.

State Farm Arena video

In December 2020, Trump’s legal team unveiled excerpts of election night surveillance video from State Farm Arena that they called a “smoking gun” for fraud. The video shows Fulton County workers stop counting ballots about 10 p.m., then resume counting after election observers and the media left.

Trump’s attorneys said the election workers sent observers home, pulled out “suitcases” of ballots from under tables and began counting in secret. They questioned where the suitcases came from and suggested the ballots were fraudulent.

Investigators from the secretary of state’s office reviewed hours of surveillance video and interviewed the election workers. The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office also investigated. They all concluded nothing improper happened.

They found that workers stopped counting when an election supervisor told them to go home for the night. But the secretary of state’s office called and told Fulton County to keep counting. So, workers resumed counting.

Investigators found no one ordered the election observers and the media to leave – they left on their own when workers stopped counting. They returned later, when they learned counting had resumed.

The “suitcases” were official ballot containers. The full video shows workers placing them under the tables when they thought they were done for the night – in full view of election observers. When they were told to resume counting, the workers pulled out the containers and started counting again.

Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting system manager, told Channel 2 Action News that the video shows election workers “just doing their jobs” after the observers had left. They were scanning ballots.

“It’s not like this is an ‘Ocean’s Eleven-level’ scheme put together in the middle of the night,” he said.

The FBI also concluded “there was nothing irregular about the events,” former U.S. Attorney Byung “BJay” Pak told U.S. Senate investigators months later.

Hacked voting machines

Trump and others claimed that shadowy forces – either Democrats or foreign powers – used Dominion Voting Systems machines to electronically flip Trump votes to Biden in Georgia and elsewhere.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said this is “not possible – not on a machine-by-machine basis, not by alleged hacking, not by manipulating software and not by imagined ways of ‘sending’ votes to overseas locations.”

In Georgia, voters make their choices on a Dominion ballot-marking device, which prints their completed ballot but does not tally votes. Voters then scan the printed copy of their ballot on a Dominion scanner, which retains the printed copy.

These devices aren’t connected to the internet or to each other. The ballot-marking devices have USB ports that allow election software to be loaded, but the ports are sealed before voters use them and cannot be accessed.

Election security experts have warned that Georgia’s voting systems could be at risk if an insider directly hacked into computers or if it was compromised by third-party software, but there’s no evidence that those potential vulnerabilities have been exploited.

Raffensperger says the vote-flipping allegation has been refuted in two ways.

First, a hand recount of every ballot was done using each voter’s printed ballot. The recount uncovered about 6,000 ballots that had not originally been counted. After the hand recount, Biden’s margin of victory shrank by about 500 votes out of more than 5 million ballots cast statewide.

Then, in response to Trump’s request for a recount, election officials tallied ballots a third time. The final machine recount produced similar results as the prior two counts, with Biden winning by 11,779 votes.

In addition, the secretary of state’s office hired a federally certified voting systems test lab to audit a random sample of Dominion ballot marking devices and scanners statewide. The company, Pro V&V, extracted the software or firmware from each machine and confirmed it had not been tampered with.

In addition, the U.S. Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency said it found no evidence that foreign powers or other actors had manipulated U.S. voting machines.

Recent reporting shows Trump’s campaign knew many of the claims about Dominion machines were not true even as its representatives were making them.

Dominion has filed defamation lawsuits against some of the attorneys and news organizations that made the false claims, seeking billions of dollars in damages. In several cases, judges have already ruled there’s enough evidence of wrongdoing for the defamation lawsuits to proceed.

Fake ballots

Republican election auditors reported seeing suspicious “pristine” ballots in Fulton County during Georgia’s hand recount of presidential results. Some ballots were not creased, indicating they had not been folded and returned in official envelopes. Some appeared to be marked by computer, rather than by hand.

The secretary of state’s office says there are legitimate reasons why ballots would not be folded. Some voters cast emergency ballots at polling places if voting machines malfunction. Some military and overseas ballots are damaged and cannot be scanned, so election workers duplicate the ballots before counting them.

The secretary of state’s office investigated various allegations of “pristine” ballots in Fulton County. Investigators reviewed about 1,000 absentee ballots and ballot images in specific batches identified by the Republican auditors. They found no ballots matching the auditors’ descriptions or otherwise appearing to be counterfeit.

After learning of the lack of evidence for fraud in October, a Henry County judge dismissed a lawsuit calling for an inspection of absentee ballots in Fulton County.

Ballot shredding

Reports of improper ballot shredding in Cobb County circulated on social media in November 2020. They suggested election officials were destroying evidence of voting fraud.

The allegations were false. The company was shredding incorrect mailing labels, copies of outdated procedures and other articles not related to the current election.

Cobb County officials said such shredding is done routinely. As required by law, the county kept and stored ballots, signed absentee ballot applications and other documents used to count votes in the current election.

Another shredding allegation drew Trump’s attention.

On Jan. 3, Trump called acting U.S. Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue to tell him a federal agent had taken custody of a “truckful of ballots, or shredded ballots” outside Atlanta, Donoghue later told U.S. Senate investigators. Trump wanted the matter investigated.

At about the same time, state Sen. William Ligon contacted Byung “BJay” Pak, the top federal prosecutor in Atlanta. Pak later told Senate investigators the allegation was that Fulton County ballots were being taken to Cobb County for shredding to avoid an audit.

Donoghue said the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta investigated the matter. It turned out the truck did contain ballots to be shredded – but they were from a previous election. Following normal procedures, the county election board was shredding ballots from a past election to make room for 2020 ballots, which must be stored.

“And, yes, a truck picked up ballots, and, yes, ballots were shredded, but these all related to an old election,” Donoghue told investigators.

More recently, Fulton County fired two election workers in October for shredding about 300 voter registration applications. Fulton officials have not said why the workers were shredding ballots. The shredding occurred this fall and would not have affected the November 2020 election.

The secretary of state’s office is investigating the incident. Raffensperger has called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.