Georgia officials overstated election investigations

For weeks, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has defended the state’s handling of the presidential election and criticized those who have continued to push “massive amounts of misinformation” about widespread voter fraud.

He has fought back against unsubstantiated claims in the face of blistering social media attacks from defeated President Donald Trump, calls for his ouster by powerful Republican officeholders and death threats to his family.

Yet even as Raffensperger has offered assurances that the election was fair and honest, the secretary has helped fuel suspicions about the integrity of Georgia’s elections through imprecise and misleading statements about his office’s investigations into allegations of illegal voting and violations of state election law.

Much of the confusion about his office’s investigations started at a Nov. 30 press briefing in which Raffensperger said “we have to remain vigilant” as he announced what seemed like a widescale dragnet to run down various claims of election fraud. He said that his office had 23 investigators with more than 250 active investigations from 2020.

Even though he said there was no widespread fraud that would change the results, he cited investigations into allegations involving dead voters and double voters, and said his office was reviewing multiple allegations involving absentee ballots in “Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and many others.”

“Upholding the law matters,” he said. “Truth matters.”

A review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, however, has found that the claims by Raffensperger about the investigations lacked context and overestimated how many investigations were related to the presidential election by more than 100 cases. The actual number is approximately 130, and the vast majority the AJC reviewed involve procedural matters unrelated to fraud or isolated cases involving single voters.

Still, it took 10 days after the initial briefing for Raffensperger’s office to correct the record. In the meantime, he and others repeated the inflated figures about the number of investigations his office was conducting related to the election, giving those seeking to sow doubt in the outcome a new storyline.

In a Dec. 4 news release, Raffensperger announced a partnership with the GBI to help investigate “every credible allegation” received by his office. His press release quoted Gov. Brian Kemp, who had directed the GBI to assist, saying that “Secretary Raffensperger announced that his office had approximately 250 open investigations related to the 2020 General Election.” Just a couple of days later, Raffensperger went on “ABC This Week with George Stephanopoulos” where the host asked him about the investigations.

“We’ve never found systemic fraud — not enough to overturn the election,” Raffensperger said. “We have over 250 cases right now ... but right now we don’t see anything that would overturn, you know, the will of the people here in Georgia.”

Still, Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler — who faces a Jan. 5 runoff — cited the 250 investigations in Georgia in a nationally televised debate later that night when asked if she supported Trump’s narrative that the election was rigged. It wasn’t until four days later that Raffensperger’s office finally addressed the issue.

On Dec. 10, the same day a state House committee met for hours to hear various claims of voting fraud and irregularities, the secretary of state’s office held a press briefing to debunk some of the more outlandish allegations. Gabriel Sterling, one of Raffensperger’s top aides, pushed back on criticisms from the House hearing that the secretary of state’s office wasn’t doing enough about the allegations of fraud.

He specifically called out those who played a video at the hearing that alleges what has been a widely debunked conspiracy claiming that Fulton election workers illegally counted suitcases of bogus ballots at State Farm Arena. It is among the cases that the office has investigated with help from the GBI and the FBI.

“Giving oxygen to this continued disinformation is leading to a continuing erosion of people’s belief in our elections, in our processes,” Sterling said.

Just moments earlier, Sterling clarified the office’s statement that had led to a misunderstanding. He acknowledged that the secretary of state’s office didn’t have 250 investigations related to the general election. The figure was actually 132. Another 101 cases under investigation were from earlier in the year and had nothing to do with the presidential race.

Sterling later blamed reporters for misunderstanding the scope of the investigations. He said he’d been talking about all of 2020 all along.

“I had to go back and clean it up,” he later told the AJC.

 Voting System Implementation Manager Gabriel Sterling talks at a press conference as deaf interpreter David Cowan translates in the background Monday at the State Capital November 7, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

icon to expand image

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Few fraud cases found

For all the secretary of state’s election investigations, few of them allege fraud.

The secretary of state’s office has said they are committed to pursuing credible allegations, hoping to root out any fraud or violations of election law, while also trying to expeditiously resolve cases where allegations are unfounded. By getting at the facts, the investigations, officials say, can help bolster the integrity of the election.

“There is an incentive for us to get clarification and cut down some of this disinformation,” said Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs. “It is helpful to join (with the) GBI, to look into specific cases so that we can release findings quickly and focus on real issues that this office needs to look at, investigate or push.”

Most years Raffensperger’s office averages around 100 cases per year. During big election years, the number can climb to close to 200. Most cases handled by the office involve minor infractions or procedural breakdowns at the local level where elections are administered by 159 county supervisors across Georgia. Sometimes local election officials report issues to the state and that results in a case being opened.

Jennifer Doran, Morgan County’s election supervisor, last month reported one of the cases that is listed as a “voter qualifications” case on the secretary of state’s list.

It involved a voter who owned property in Morgan County who had requested an absentee ballot, but had moved their homestead exemption to a property in neighboring Newton County. That meant they had to move their voter registration, too.

“As soon as they were notified they called me and they said they didn’t understand this was something they were supposed to do,” she said. “They weren’t going to try to fight it.”

Local election officials say they often don’t know when their offices are under investigation, but the secretary of state’s staff may call or email them with questions. Gilmer County had a case involving a voter who complained to the state that they were not allowed to vote during early voting. He allegedly was told by a poll worker that he had already cast a ballot, records show.

Gilmer officials said they didn’t recall the episode and doubt that they would have sent anybody away telling them they couldn’t vote. Still, Tammy Watkins, the Gilmer County registrar, said they welcome the state’s review.

“We’re human,” said Watkins. “We can make mistakes. I would let my staff know this is what’s happened and work toward never letting it happen again.”

In Newton County, elections board Chairman Philip Johnson said he’s aware of two recent allegations: A candidate drove around a polling place with a large campaign sign on the back of his truck, and a dead person was accused of having voted. In the case of the alleged dead voter, it turned out to be a very much alive widow who used the name of her husband, Mrs. James Blalock.

“My experience on the ground is that no, there’s no evidence of fraud,” Johnson said. “Is it possible that there are individual instances where somebody does do something like brings a ballot for a friend and drops it in a drop box? Maybe that happens, but the numbers are not significant.”

In county election offices, where local officials verify ballots, they say fraud charges are overblown.

County election directors and election board members say complaints aren’t uncommon after a presidential election, but they’ve rarely turned out to show large-scale problems.

Those that claim illegal voting usually do so on a small scale, such as an Alabama woman who ordered an absentee ballot from Georgia, parents who voted for their son, or several people who allegedly voted in both Florida and Georgia, according to case sheets obtained by the AJC through the Georgia Open Records Act.

“We’re getting the same calls as everyone else about people getting multiple ballots in the mail, when it’s really multiple applications” to request absentee ballots, which isn’t illegal, said Bartow County Elections Director Joseph Kirk. “I encourage anybody who thinks they have found fraud to report it. That said, I haven’t seen it myself.”

Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler said she’s been able to provide explanations for what happened to state investigators.

When one person questioned why there were boxes stacked up without supervision, Eveler found out that the boxes were empty and didn’t contain ballots. In another case, a voter complained that his absentee ballot wasn’t counted, but it turned out he had returned a ballot left over from the primary election.

The state is conducting an audit of Cobb County’s signature matching process following a complaint from a worker who thought mismatches weren’t being rigorously reviewed, Eveler said.

“A lot of the complaints are from people who don’t understand the process,” Eveler said. “They think there’s fraud. They think there’s something going on. There’s not.”

‘Nothing to hide’

Some who’ve been targeted by the investigations don’t view Raffensperger’s actions benignly.

Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, said Raffensperger’s office is misusing its enforcement power to score political points.

He held a news conference in September to announce his office was investigating more than 1,000 people who were suspected of casting double ballots in the chaotic June primary. He said those who broke election law would be prosecuted and his office would not tolerate violators. The cases remain under investigation.

“Pushing the false notion of widespread voter fraud is a long-held strategy the Georgia GOP has used to justify voter suppression, and now it seems also to be a political tactic for Secretary Raffensperger to curry favor with those who have pushed dangerous conspiracy theories about President-elect Biden’s victory,” said Fair Fight spokesman Seth Bringman.

Investigators are also targeting voter registration groups based on suspicions that they’re illegally encouraging out-of-state or temporary Georgia residents to participate in the runoffs.

Paul Heller, the founder of Operation New Voter Registration, said he was surprised by the investigation into his group. He said the secretary of state’s office had helped guide his organization when he asked questions, but he hasn’t heard from anyone since Raffensperger announced the inquiry.

Heller’s group attempts to register out-of-state university students who are living in Georgia for school, which he says is allowed under state law. He said his group registered hundreds of new voters in the weeks leading up to the state’s Dec. 7 voter registration deadline.

“I have nothing to hide,” Heller said. “The only thing I can think of is we were targeted because we were the only new registration group that showed up at college campuses.”

Cathy Cox, a Democrat who ended her two terms as secretary of state in 2007, said Raffensperger has done a pretty good job standing up to the aggressive misinformation from within his party. But she sees some mixed messaging.

She said calling press conferences to discuss hundreds of investigations and calling for additional reviews, such as signature audits, are ways he’s trying to appear tough to placate Republicans.

“Somebody has to stop this or we’ll be chasing conspiracy theories at taxpayer expense forever,” she said.