Some ballots initially double-counted in Fulton before recount

David Cross presents evidence of double-counted ballots doing the 2020 presidential election Tuesday. Cross showed photos of what he believes are duplicate ballots that were scanned in Fulton County following the election. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)
Caption
David Cross presents evidence of double-counted ballots doing the 2020 presidential election Tuesday. Cross showed photos of what he believes are duplicate ballots that were scanned in Fulton County following the election. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Almost 200 duplicate found when ballot images made public

A duplicate write-in vote for singer Kanye West was a big clue that some absentee ballots had been counted twice in Fulton County.

Digital ballot images made public under Georgia’s new voting law show nearly 200 ballots — including one for West — that election officials initially scanned two times last fall before a recount. There’s no indication any vote for president was counted more than once in official results.

The discovery of identical ballots provides evidence to back up allegations of problems in the presidential election, but on a relatively small scale that had no bearing on the final certified count. A group of voters seeking to prove the election was fraudulent say double-counting is just the beginning of what they hope to find.

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Supporters of Republican Donald Trump have been searching for signs of fraud since his 12,000-vote loss to Democrat Joe Biden in Georgia. But two recounts confirmed Biden’s victory, and the courts have rejected lawsuits that sought to overturn the results.

Double-counted ballots were discovered by voters suing Fulton in an effort to persuade a judge to allow them to conduct an in-depth inspection of 147,000 absentee ballots. The judge ruled against the plaintiffs last month, but the case survived with new claims filed against the county’s five election board members.

“If we’re finding this in Fulton County, we’re probably going to find it throughout the state. The question is, why did it happen?” said David Cross, an investment manager working with the plaintiffs. “The simple fact that it happened and we found it here means that it probably occurred elsewhere.”

Election observers and organizations say it’s unlikely that double-counting occurred often or in large numbers.

The ballots counted twice would have given Biden 31 extra votes. After a recount, official results reflected that Trump gained a total of 121 absentee votes in Fulton. Biden won the county with 73% of 524,000 votes cast.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also verified the duplicate ballots in ballot images obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act and posted online.

ExploreSee Fulton ballots with unclear markings and how officials ruled

The overall number of ballots counted in Georgia generally matched the number of voters who checked in at polling places or returned absentee ballots. Manual and machine recounts found similar totals for each candidate.

“It’s Fulton failing to follow proper election protocols again,” said Carter Jones, an independent monitor of Fulton’s elections who found sloppy practices but no fraud. “Fulton is so poor at managing the actual process that if they had actually tried to rig the election, they would have bungled it and we would have found out.”

Jones said it’s possible that an election worker lost track of which absentee ballots had already been scanned in the initial count and then ran them through the machine again.

Jones, hired by the State Election Board to observe Fulton’s elections after last year’s primary, recommended that the county change absentee ballot processing during the recount and runoff, boxing up absentee ballots for storage as soon as they were scanned. The county followed his advice, reducing the chance that ballots would be counted twice.

The most obvious example of duplicates in the initial count occurred in a batch of 99 ballots first scanned the morning of Oct. 28, then scanned again about an hour later, with the second batch tallied in exact reverse order from the first. Those batches had 58 votes for Biden, 39 for Trump, one for Libertarian Jo Jorgensen and one for West.

Part or all of another batch of 98 ballots appeared to be scanned a second time within minutes on election night. Biden received 55 votes in the first of those batches and 56 in the second batch. Many of the ballots appeared to be identical.

“It’s something that should never happen,” said Mark Lindeman, acting co-director for Verified Voting, an election integrity organization focused on voting technology. “I’m not trying to make excuses for a blunder, but under really difficult circumstances, people do things that are inexplicable, and that seems to be the case here.”

Lindeman said he couldn’t recall another example of ballots being scanned twice anywhere in the country. He suggested stronger ballot tracking practices, with ballots divided into batches with unique identifying labels and cover sheets. Some jurisdictions imprint serial numbers on absentee ballots as they’re scanned for use during audits.

Fulton election officials declined to comment while the court case seeking a ballot inspection is pending.

County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said allegations of widespread fraud are based on the “big lie” that the presidential election was illegitimate.

“Allegations of intentional wrongdoing or fraud remain untrue and baseless,” Pitts said. “The big lie is a dangerous conspiracy theory falsely claiming that tens of thousands of votes in Fulton County — and millions nationwide — were fraudulent, not that there’s the possibility of small-scale human error.”

The secretary of state’s office has been investigating Fulton’s elections management and could eventually bring a case for consideration before the State Election Board, which has the power to issue fines or refer allegations to the attorney general’s office.

Georgia’s voting law, Senate Bill 202, also gives the state board authority to replace county election boards and install an appointed administrator.

Other Georgia counties made larger vote-counting errors than Fulton’s during the initial tally.

Election workers in three counties discovered a total of more than 3,300 new votes stored on memory cards that hadn’t been loaded into election computers. A different issue in Floyd County led to 2,600 ballots going unscanned. Those ballots were included in the recount and in Georgia’s official certified results.

What’s next

Election skeptics plan to continue scrutinizing ballot images outside of court, looking for irregularities in Fulton County and other jurisdictions where a majority of voters supported Joe Biden. They’ll also continue pressing their case in court in an attempt to obtain higher-resolution images and an in-person inspection.

Attorneys for Fulton have said the case is meritless and will ask for its dismissal.