Investigation concludes Fulton failed to send many absentee ballots

Fulton County employees continue to count mail-in ballots the day after the Georgia primary election at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. A spokesperson for Fulton County said that they will announce the final number of mail-in ballots on Wednesday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Fulton County employees continue to count mail-in ballots the day after the Georgia primary election at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. A spokesperson for Fulton County said that they will announce the final number of mail-in ballots on Wednesday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Hundreds of voters in Fulton County didn’t receive absentee ballots they had requested, infringing on their voting rights in Georgia’s June 9 primary, according to the findings of an investigation Thursday.

The State Election Board voted unanimously to refer the case to the attorney general’s office for further investigation of whether Fulton election officials broke state laws requiring timely processing of absentee ballot applications.

Over 250 Fulton voters complained that the county failed to send them absentee ballots, according to the secretary of state’s office. Of those, at least 107 didn’t cast a vote in the primary. It’s likely that many more voters were affected but didn’t report the problem.

“If one person being denied their right to vote is too many, 250 is certainly too many,” said State Election Board member David Worley, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “This problem has got to be fixed. There is almost no margin for error anymore in processing absentee ballots and making sure that November’s elections work.”

Next, the attorney general’s office will further review the case, which could return to the State Election Board for a final decision. The board has the power to issue fines up to $5,000 per violation, or it could issue a letter of instruction or reprimand.

Fulton election officials said they were overwhelmed by unprecedented demand for absentee ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic. Over 140,000 Fulton voters applied for absentee-by-mail ballots in the primary, up from 23,000 in the 2018 general election.

An elections employee died from COVID-19, and the county’s registration chief was hospitalized, resulting in the elections office closing for four days to be sanitized and creating a backlog of absentee applications. Then the county struggled to handle about 80,000 emailed absentee ballot applications, which were printed out and manually entered into computers.

Email inboxes reached their capacity and printers broke down. Some of those absentee applications were never processed, and ballots weren’t mailed to voters.

“The volume of email and faxes was so heavy that the system crashed, and it took the IT department several weeks to correct those issues,” said Caryn Ficklin, a Fulton registration supervisor. “I did my best to process every absentee application that we received. I would never intentionally try to keep anyone from exercising their right to vote.”

An attorney for the county acknowledged that some voters’ absentee applications weren’t processed. Fulton election officials said the absentee problems from the primary won’t occur again in advance of the Nov. 3 general election.

A Fulton voter, Sallie Pecora-Saipe, told the board that she requested an absentee ballot to be delivered to her while she was out of town in Connecticut, but it never arrived. Instead, the county mailed her ballot to her Roswell home just three days before the primary.

“I was deprived of my right to vote,” Pecora-Saipe said. “I find that so negligent.”

Another voter, Mark Swanson, said he repeatedly followed up with Fulton’s election office by phone and email to try to obtain an absentee ballot, but he never received a response.

“I was deprived of voting in the primary June 9 by the failure of Fulton County to send me an absentee ballot, which I had requested well before the election,” Swanson said.

Many voters who didn’t receive their absentee ballots went to the polls on election day instead, contributing to hours-long lines.

It’s unclear how many absentee ballot applications Fulton didn’t process. An investigator asked the county’s attorney to turn over a hard drive containing emailed absentee ballot requests.

“There’s a systems management issue, definitely, at Fulton County, and it has to get fixed,” said State Election Board member Matt Mashburn, a longtime Republican poll watcher.

While other counties also had difficulties managing absentee ballot applications, Fulton accounted for 75% to 80% of all complaints about the primary statewide, said an investigator for the secretary of state’s office.

In all, over 1.15 million people voted absentee in Georgia’s primary, nearly half of total turnout. The number of absentee voters might rise for the general election, when 5 million total voters are expected.

How to vote absentee in Georgia

All registered voters in Georgia are eligible to request an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse.

Voters can download and print an absentee ballot application from the secretary of state’s website, then mail it to their county’s elections office.

In addition, voters will soon be able to order an absentee ballot online, without having to deal with a paper form. The new absentee ballot application website is planned to launch by the end of this month.

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