Since at least 2007, Fulton County has dealt with elections-related problemsthat range from the criminal to the absurd. Tuesday night, they found yet another way to mess up — this time, on a national stage.
In a technology-driven environment, with electronic check-insand voting machines, it was human error that brought the system to a grinding halt: someone put a memory card for a local council race into the wrong basket.
As a result, Fulton shut its vote-counting operation down for more than an hour as it tried to identify which card was the culprit. Never mind that both cards and baskets were color-coded to prevent just that from happening.
The race to represent the traditionally Republican 6th congressional district— which culminated in a June runoff between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel — was seen by many nationwide as a referendum on President Donald Trump. It was the source of breathless commentary for weeks before anyone cast a ballot.
So of course, it took Fulton more than six hours after the polls closed to count them.
In the 6th district race, Fulton results weren’t ready until after 2 a.m. In South Fulton, where residents elected their first mayor and council, it took until almost 3:30 a.m.
When did DeKalb finish? Before 10 p.m. Cobb was done 40 minutes later.
“Little things always seem to pop up,” said Fulton County Registration and Elections Director Richard Barron, who was brought in in 2013 to right the department.
To say that viewers locally and across the nation were exasperated is to undersell the frustration they felt while waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the numbers to come in.
Candice Broce, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State, said she was watching Twitter through the evening. “What a surprise, Fulton County is holding it up again,” she saw tweeted from several political pundits.
In Atlanta, @gl0bo_chem was succinct: “@FultonInfo u up?” the midnight tweet said. @InternallyValid asked the county to ready its fax machines and carrier pigeons.
“We’re not exactly sure why it always ends up this way,” Broce, with the Secretary of State’s office, said. “We don’t have this problem out in DeKalb, in Cobb. We always have it in Fulton.”
Barron, late Tuesday, called the problem a “rare error.” It’s only rare in that it’s something different this time.
Broce rattled off a list of the county’s misdeeds: There was the batch of voter registrations tossed in a Dumpster in 2007. The mismanagement of absentee ballotsin 2008. The 2012 failureto properly register voters, leading 10,000 people to cast provisional ballotsin that year’s presidential race. All resulted in supervision and fines.
2014 was fairly smooth, Broce said, and there weren’t really election problemswith the 2016 presidential contest. But before that race, Barron was under fire for sending letters directing more than 20,000 residents to the wrong polling location. And that spring, it was precinct cardsthat were returned to sender, instead of arriving at voters’ homes.
“I think it’s fair to say there’s always been something come up, every election,” Broce said.
This time, the problem was easily preventable — even silly. Put the memory card in the right basket.
“It reflects poorly on the county as a whole,” said Gabriel Sterling, a Sandy Springs councilman who plans to run for chairman of the Fulton County commission. “From New York City to Hawaii, nobody knew what happened. We’re too big of a county to have those ridiculous issues.”
Twitter had a field day with the delays. In North Carolina, @James_B_Pearce tweeted a picture of Clippy, the Microsoft assistant who always thinks he can write your letter better. “Hey Fulton County, it looks like you’re trying to count ballots,” Clippy said. In California, @tomaikenhead asked whether they county’s intention was to “go to bed on a cliffhanger.” And in Florida, @barttalford tweeted a picture of the painter Bob Ross at the county. “We don’t make mistakes — we just have happy accidents,” it said.
“I don’t administer elections according to what happens on Twitter,” Barron said, while acknowledging it was a frustrating situation.
He was at work until about 4 a.m. — it was after 2 a.m. when the 6th district votes were finally totaled.
“We are consistently the last to report,” Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said. “I don’t think the community really cares what the issue is. They just want to know the results. The eyes of the country were on us yesterday.”