Judge may unseal Fulton absentee ballots for fraud investigation

Fulton County election workers tally absentee ballots in November. A judge may unseal the ballots to allow a government watchdog to investigate claims of fraud. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

Credit: John Spink/AJC

Fulton County election workers tally absentee ballots in November. A judge may unseal the ballots to allow a government watchdog to investigate claims of fraud. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

A judge may unseal absentee ballots in Fulton County so a government watchdog can investigate allegations of voting fraud in the November election.

A lawsuit filed in Fulton County Superior Court contends that fraudulent ballots were cast and other irregularities occurred as workers counted ballots at State Farm Arena on election night. Those allegations were investigated and dismissed by the secretary of state’s office. Nonetheless, Henry County Superior Court Judge Brian Amero — who is overseeing the case — said he’s inclined to order the ballots to be unsealed and reviewed by experts hired by Garland Favorito, a voting-integrity advocate.

At a hearing Monday, Amero sought a detailed plan for maintaining the secrecy and security of the ballots, which — by state law — are under seal in the Fulton County Superior Court Clerk’s Office.

“We want to do this in such a way that dispels rumors and disinformation and sheds light,” Amero said at the hearing. “The devil’s in the details.”

Favorito’s case is part of a wave of lawsuits that have alleged fraud or misconduct in the November presidential election. Some sought to overturn Joe Biden’s win in Georgia, while others sought to change election rules for the January U.S. Senate runoffs.

None of them succeeded. But the accusations of fraud have inspired a slew of bills in the Georgia General Assembly that could restrict voting in the name of election security. And more recent lawsuits have sought access to ballots and other information that could shed light on fraud allegations.

In a lawsuit filed in Gwinnett County Superior Court in December, the group VoterGA is seeking copies of 100 ballot images from a recent judicial election so the group can analyze what it believes are “anomalies in the election results.”

Last week the watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, alleging his office has violated the Georgia Open Records Act. In November, Judicial Watch requested documents related to a 2020 settlement agreement that required additional procedures before absentee ballots could be rejected for mismatched voter signatures. It also requested documents related to the processing of absentee ballots in November.

The group’s lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, says Raffensperger’s office still hasn’t provided the requested documents. Raffensperger’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Favorito is seeking to review absentee ballots in Fulton County. He says county workers likely fabricated ballots and counted some ballots multiple times on election night. As evidence, his lawsuit cites video of the counting, as well as sworn statements from people who were present.

The observers were suspicious of ballots that were printed on a different stock of paper than regular ballots, appeared to have been printed instead of marked by ink in a voter’s hand or were not creased, indicating they had not been placed in an absentee ballot envelope and mailed.

Investigators with the secretary of state’s office reviewed hours of video from election night and said they saw nothing improper.

In public comments and in court documents, state and county officials say many damaged ballots must be duplicated because scanners won’t process them. And they say that ballot scanners sometimes jam, though some ballots get through the scanner before it stops. When that happens, workers scan the ballots again, but they’re not counted twice.

Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the secretary of state’s office, said the witness statements in the lawsuits are wrong.

“It’s not people who are lying,” Sterling said in an interview last week. “They don’t understand what they’re saying.”

At Monday’s hearing, Amero said he’s willing to order the absentee ballots to be unsealed if he’s assured their security will not be compromised. He requested a detailed plan, including who would review the ballots, how they would analyze them and how they would secure them.

The judge also discussed a protective order that would prohibit Favorito’s experts from disclosing their work without permission from the court. And he plans to appoint a special master — perhaps a retired superior court judge — to oversee the analysis. If Amero allows it, the review of ballots could begin in late April.

“I can’t sign an order until such time as I’m satisfied that the manner and method (of review) proposed by the petitioners is reasonable,” the judge said.