Inquiry shows 1,000 Georgians may have voted twice, but no conspiracy

05/18/2020 - Lawrenceville, Georgia  - Voters wearing face masks strand in line outside of the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Office in order to participate in early voting in Lawrenceville, Monday, May 18, 2020.  Early voting began May 18 and will last three-weeks, ended June 5. Georgia's Election Day is Tuesday, June 9.(ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
05/18/2020 - Lawrenceville, Georgia - Voters wearing face masks strand in line outside of the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Office in order to participate in early voting in Lawrenceville, Monday, May 18, 2020. Early voting began May 18 and will last three-weeks, ended June 5. Georgia's Election Day is Tuesday, June 9.(ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Records show voters cast ballots both before and on election day

When Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger revealed that he suspected 1,000 people of double-voting, his allegation was instantly hailed as either proof of widespread fraud or criticized as a hasty conclusion without evidence.

New information disclosed by his office this week provides details to justify his claim but doesn’t show any intention by voters to rig elections. Many double-voters might have cast in-person ballots because they thought their absentee ballots wouldn’t count.

Preliminary numbers show 1,042 people voted twice in 119 counties during the June 9 primary. State election officials found these voters by comparing absentee and early voting records with voter check-in data on election day.

The release of double-voting details sheds light on how fraud may or may not have occurred at a time when voters across the political spectrum are worried about their ballots counting in the Nov. 3 presidential election. President Donald Trump has frequently criticized mailed-in ballots — even though he uses them himself to vote in Florida — but the data doesn’t point to an organized effort to destabilize elections in Georgia.

“It does not appear to be a vast conspiracy,” said Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting system implementation manager. “Just by the data distribution pattern alone, you can see this was individuals acting and not in any kind of organized effort on anybody’s part that we could discern.”'

Voting more than once is illegal. Voter check-in records don’t prove someone voted twice, but they indicate someone was issued an access card to complete a secret ballot.

While the number of suspected double-voters is higher than any other voting fraud case seen in Georgia in recent years, officials don’t believe the extra votes influenced election outcomes. It’s likely that county election workers caught some of the attempted repeat votes before they were counted.

Even if these cases are proven, the rate of double-voting remained low: 0.04% of all 2.4 million votes cast in the primary. State Election Board records since 2015 show that absentee ballot fraud has been rare in Georgia, with few violations found.

The investigation is in its early stages, and voters and poll workers haven’t yet been interviewed to find out exactly what happened. But election records suggest something went wrong in handfuls of cases across most Georgia counties.

“It’s pretty clear that there were double-voters,” Sterling said. “Any time we see the potential for double-voting, it’s going to be investigated because a vote diluted is a vote denied. You’re hurting the rights of everybody else who follows the rules.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Sept. 8 that about 1,000 Georgians voted twice in the state’s June 9 primary, a felony that he said would  be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Sept. 8 that about 1,000 Georgians voted twice in the state’s June 9 primary, a felony that he said would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Raffensperger, a Republican, launched his voting fraud inquiry a week after Trump encouraged voters in North Carolina to cast two ballots — by mail and in person — to test election systems. Raffensperger didn’t mention Trump by name but warned Georgia voters not to try to vote twice.

Groups critical of the double-voting allegations said the secretary of state’s office is wasting time by investigating voters who may not have meant to do anything wrong.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has volunteered to provide legal defense for anyone charged with double-voting in the primary.

“The June 2020 primary was an unmitigated disaster. Due to elections officials' own mismanagement, bewildered Georgia voters were forced to cast ballots in person when their submitted absentee ballot applications were lost to the abyss,” said Sean Young, legal director for the ACLU of Georgia. “The state should spend less time siccing investigators after innocent Georgia voters who the state presumes guilty and more time looking inward to ensure that this does not happen again.”

It’s unclear how many of the alleged double-voters returned their absentee ballots close to election day and then voted in person because they were unsure whether their mailed ballots had been received. That possibility will be explored as part of the investigation, Sterling said.

Some voters who had returned absentee ballots showed up on election day because their absentee ballots hadn’t yet been acknowledged as having been received by the county on the state’s My Voter Page.

Political campaigns and organizations encouraged people to vote on election day through text messages and phone calls, regardless of whether they had already cast a ballot, Sterling said.

Poll workers were supposed to prevent double-voting by calling county election offices before allowing those who had requested absentee ballots to vote in person. That process broke down in the election day chaos of long lines, stressed poll workers and busy phone lines.

The highest number of alleged double-voting was found in Fulton County, where election workers struggled to handle a large increase in the number of absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic. Fulton accounted for 137 of the potential repeat voters in Georgia.

“These are serious allegations that require further review. Fulton County takes election security very seriously, and we have strong measures in place to ensure our elections are fair and secure," county spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt-Dominguez said. “These include processes for surrender of absentee ballots at the polls, logging of in-person voters, and measures taken during the tabulation process.”

Some double-voting may have been intentional.

Election records show 162 of the 1,042 suspected double-voters first cast a ballot during three weeks of in-person early voting, then again on election day June 9.

It’s likely that some poll workers didn’t follow their training to mark people as having voted immediately during early voting, instead relying on paper certificates that were only later entered into election computers, Sterling said.

Some voters might have voted twice to test the election system, as one voter in Long County admitted. That voter, Hamilton Evans, has said he voted early and then again on election day to see what would happen. He was allowed to vote and then reported the issue to the sheriff’s office.

Bobby Smith, a probate judge in Long County, said he was shocked to learn that Evans and six other people may have voted twice in his close election this June.

“I was like, there’s no way you can vote twice,” said Smith, who is asking a judge to order a new election after he appeared to lose re-election by nine votes. “There should have been no way. There should have been safeguards.”

Before this year, there was just one case of double-voting in recent years involving absentee ballots, according to State Election Board records. A man moved from Lumpkin County to North Carolina, voting absentee in Georgia and in person in North Carolina.

Double-voting increased this year because of a new statewide voting system that added paper ballots, poorly trained poll workers during the coronavirus pandemic, and an unprecedented increase in absentee voting that swamped local election officials, Sterling said.

Election officials have added protections to reduce the possibility of double-voting in the Nov. 3 general election.

If voters who requested absentee ballots then decide to vote in person, only poll managers will be allowed to approve canceling their absentee ballots, reducing the chance that lower-level poll workers would inappropriately issue voter access cards, Sterling said.

In addition, poll workers won’t be able to override computers to issue voter access cards to people who records show have already voted. They would only be allowed to fill out a provisional ballot that could be counted once election officials verify voter information.

The Democratic Party of Georgia said it’s concerned that the secretary of state’s office is spending resources to investigate voting fraud so close to the election.

“The secretary of state should be taking action to make sure every single Georgian has the knowledge and resources they need to make their vote counted in this already record-breaking election,” Democratic Party of Georgia spokeswoman Maggie Chambers said.

The secretary of state’s office said 60% of suspected double-voters who pulled partisan ballots in the primary used Democratic Party ballots. The remaining 40% were Republican Party voters.

Double-voting is a felony in Georgia, punishable by one to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $100,000.

Double-voting fraud cases are difficult to prove, especially for voters who say they didn’t mean to, said Jake Evans, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party’s recently created Elections Competence Task Force, formed to recommend changes to state elections rules.

“Some of these people I’ve seen are older, and they legitimately just inadvertently forgot they had voted. And then there are situations where there’s fraud, and they deliberately tried to cast two ballots,” said Evans, an attorney for Smith in his case seeking a new election in Long County. “From a fraud perspective, there’s always a way to explain it away and try to create an excuse.”

Double-voting continued in the Aug. 11 runoff, election records show. In that race, 278 of the 294 repeated votes came from people who cast ballots both during in-person early voting and on election day, with the remaining 16 votes by absentee. Sterling said he can’t yet explain those double-votes until they’re further investigated.

The investigation will likely last months if not years, and decisions to prosecute double-voting will be made on a case-by-case basis.

Double-voting numbers from secretary of state's office

Double-voting by the numbers

1,042: Total number of voters suspected of casting two ballots in Georgia’s June 9 primary

880: Absentee voters who may have voted twice

162: Early voters who also showed up on election day

294: Additional number of alleged double-voters in the state’s Aug. 11 runoff.

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