Judge throws out most of case alleging counterfeit ballots in Fulton

Superior Court Judge Brian Amero listens as attorney Don Samuel, right, speaks on behalf of the Fulton County elections board Monday during a hearing on the motion to dismiss the case of the review of Fulton County elections ballots at the Henry County Courthouse in McDonough. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Superior Court Judge Brian Amero listens as attorney Don Samuel, right, speaks on behalf of the Fulton County elections board Monday during a hearing on the motion to dismiss the case of the review of Fulton County elections ballots at the Henry County Courthouse in McDonough. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A judge dismissed most of a lawsuit Thursday seeking a deep inspection of Fulton County absentee ballots from last year’s presidential election, a review pursued by voters trying to find fraud.

Superior Court Judge Brian Amero’s ruling jeopardizes the prospects for the ballot inspection to continue, though a plaintiff in the lawsuit said he believes it will soon move forward.

The case is an attempt to scrutinize 147,000 absentee ballots based on claims by Republicans who suspected there were counterfeit ballots during a manual recount of November’s election results. Election officials have said there’s no indication of fraud after multiple recounts and investigations.

An attorney for the Fulton elections board said the ruling prevents the possibility for an in-person review of absentee ballots using high-powered microscopes in the Georgia World Congress Center, as sought by those who believe fraud produced Democrat Joe Biden’s 12,000-vote win in Georgia over Republican Donald Trump.

“That litigation is finished,” said Don Samuel, a prominent Atlanta attorney hired by the Fulton elections board. “Is there going to be an audit? Not right now. ... There’s no discovery permitted. There’s no lawsuit pending anymore.”

Garland Favorito, center, sits with his attorney as his lawsuit against Fulton County is discussed during a hearing Monday on a motion to dismiss the case under Superior Court Judge Brian Amero at the Henry County Courthouse in McDonough.(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Garland Favorito, center, sits with his attorney as his lawsuit against Fulton County is discussed during a hearing Monday on a motion to dismiss the case under Superior Court Judge Brian Amero at the Henry County Courthouse in McDonough.(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Amero dismissed most claims against the county elections board, the county clerk and the county itself, deciding they couldn’t be sued under Georgia’s sovereign immunity laws, which limit when plaintiffs can turn to the courts for relief.

The judge left in place a previous order requiring the county to produce digital images of absentee ballots and other election records that are public documents under the Georgia Open Records Act.

The lead plaintiff in the case, Garland Favorito, said he viewed Amero’s order as a victory.

Favorito plans to submit a ballot inspection plan next week based on the judge’s order in May to unseal absentee ballots, allowing for high-resolution re-scans of ballots and an in-person review.

“We just want Fulton to be held responsible,” Favorito said. “We could be moving forward any time now unless they try to stall again. Fulton may make a new desperation move to postpone it.”

But Samuel said when the case is over, the prior order to unseal absentee ballot will become moot.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Georgia election officials have repeatedly said there’s no evidence of significant fraud in the election after ballots were counted three times last year. The secretary of state’s office is investigating over 100 complaints about last year’s general election, and even if all of them exposed invalid votes, Biden still would have won.

ExploreView and download Fulton County absentee ballots

The lawsuit wanted a judge to authorize a ballot inspection after Republican election observers and auditors alleged that there were “pristine” ballots with perfectly filled-in ovals, as well as batches of ballots cast entirely for Biden in the heavily Democratic county.

Investigators reviewed those ballot batches and looked for irregularities but found no signs of counterfeits, according to the secretary of state’s office. A monitor installed in the county before the election reported sloppy ballot handling procedures, but not fraud.

“This lawsuit is the result of meritless claims and the ‘big lie,’ ” Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said. “It’s been six months and no proof of wrongdoing has been produced. Enough is enough — this whole circus must end.”

ExploreMore: Read Judge Amero's order

Though Amero dismissed claims against the Fulton elections board, he allowed the plaintiffs to add its five members as defendants, keeping the case alive.

Samuel said he plans to file motions to dismiss claims against them as well because there are no allegations that election board members — two Republicans, two Democrats and an appointee of the county commission — had any role in counting ballots.

Before Amero’s ruling, those who believe the election was fraudulent had hoped for a ballot inspection similar to an ongoing review in Arizona.

Meanwhile, Republican state senators in Michigan issued a report Wednesday saying there was no systemic election fraud and voters could be confident in the results of the presidential election.

“I have never doubted that competent, experienced and objective analysis would find what I have said from the beginning, that the election was fair and accurate,” Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Wednesday.

Without a court-ordered ballot review, Favorito and the other plaintiffs would be left with computerized absentee ballot images that they were already provided through a request under the Georgia Open Records Act. Favorito has said those images aren’t clear enough to detect irregularities.

The story so far

What happened: A judge dismissed most of a lawsuit seeking an inspection of Fulton County absentee ballots.

The latest: Little is left of the case, and election officials plan to ask for those parts to be thrown out as well.

What’s next: Plaintiffs who believe there was fraud will ask the judge to continue with the ballot review.