Fulton County violated numerous state elections rules and mishandled the ballots of thousands of voters during last year’s general election, an investigation by the Secretary of State’s Office has found.
A preliminary investigation report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says poor planning and bad decisions led to long lines and confusion at some polling places in the November 2012 general election. Among other things, the report claims Fulton failed to hire enough data-entry workers to handle voter registrations, missed deadlines to enter those registrations and failed to properly document or secure the provisional ballots of some 9,600 voters.
The State Election Board on Tuesday will consider the allegations, which could lead to heavy fines against the county if found to be true.
In addition to the problems noted about the 2012 general election, the report cites violations in the July 2012 primary election and says Fulton still hasn’t fully resolved a 2012 incident in which it found hundreds of people registered to vote at addresses that apparently were empty lots.
“Perhaps most troubling is the apparent utter disregard for the security and integrity of practically the entirety of the provisional ballot process,” the report concludes. “Almost 10,000 votes (in the general election) were essentially undocumented or under-documented and under-secured.”
The State Election Board could refer the case to the Attorney General’s Office for further review and possible administrative proceedings and penalties.
A source familiar with the investigation said Fulton could be subject to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, plus mandatory training and reporting requirements.
David Walbert, an attorney representing the Fulton County Board of Elections and Registration, said the state’s allegations are exaggerated. He said the county already has made staffing and other changes and is focused on future elections.
“It’s unfortunate to be fighting an expensive fight over the past that we feel could be avoided if everyone would look at what’s the best way to make changes in a cooperative environment,” Walbert said.
Jared Thomas, a spokesman for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, declined to comment, except to say, “We look forward to a productive hearing on Tuesday.”
The investigation was prompted by scores of complaints about Fulton’s election problems last year. The Secretary of State’s Office received about 150 complaints concerning the November 2012 general election alone.
Long lines greeted many voters who went to the polls for that election. Some gave up and left, and thousands more were forced to vote with provisional ballots because they weren’t listed in electronic registration rolls and sometimes even if they were.
A major contributing factor, according to the investigation report: Fulton failed to hire enough workers to type voter data into an electronic registration system in the weeks leading up to the election. Many voters weren’t entered into the system in time, forcing the county to prepare a supplemental printed list of some 6,000 voters that was distributed to poll workers. It was an unusually large number for a supplemental voter list, according to the report.
But some poll managers didn’t receive lists or got them long after polls had opened, the investigation found.
As a result, some voters waited more than four hours to cast a ballot, according to the report. Two dozen were told – incorrectly – that they couldn’t vote. Some precincts ran out of provisional ballots, and poll workers told some voters to try other precincts.
About 9,600 Fulton residents cast provisional ballots in the election — more than half the provisional ballots cast in the state. And election workers failed to properly document many of those ballots, the report says.
The report does not detail instances of voter fraud. But investigators said it was “not a far leap from incompetence to genuine election fraud,” given the haphazard documentation of ballots.
The report found at least 11 violations of election rules in the general election, most of them failures to properly document provisional ballots.
It also found at least four violations in its investigation of the July 2012 primary election. Among them: Some voters were assigned to incorrect precincts, including about 350 residents of the Sandy Springs area. As a result, an undetermined number of people may have voted in the wrong election.
Finally, the investigation found Fulton apparently has not resolved 2012 reports that hundreds of voters were registered at addresses where apartment buildings had been demolished.
Walbert, the county’s attorney, provided a detailed written rebuttal of the charges prepared for a public hearing last January. The rebuttal contends the Secretary of State’s Office bears much of the blame for the late entry of voter registrations for last year’s general election.
It says the county hired 40 additional workers to enter registration data but didn’t receive about 3,800 voter applications from the Secretary of State’s Office until after the state’s deadline for entering the information. Fulton also faulted the state’s deadline, which was nearly two weeks before the election.
The county also said it was late to deliver supplemental voting lists to only two precincts. Fulton also said it provided ample provisional ballots to polling places, and it blamed some other problems on poll workers.
The rebuttal acknowledged that some voters were assigned to the wrong state House and Senate districts for the July 2012 primary election. Though some voters cast ballots in the wrong elections, Fulton maintained the outcome of those elections was not affected because the races were uncontested or the margin of victory was large enough that the improper ballots would not have made a difference.
The county’s rebuttal claimed it has resolved the issue of voters registered at apartment buildings that had been demolished. It says some of the apartments had been rebuilt, so the voter registration addresses were legitimate. About 1,209 voters were no longer living at the addresses listed, and 33 of them had voted after the apartments had been demolished, the county found.
Fulton’s election problems have led to significant leadership changes. The previous director — Sam Westmoreland — resigned in September 2012 after his arrest following allegations that he had violated the conditions of his probation on a 2009 DUI charge. Interim Director Sharon Mitchell was subsequently fired after a new director arrived in June. And most members of the county Board of Elections have resigned or been replaced.
County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said the new elections director — Richard Barron — has made significant changes to improve the department. But she said the department “was not functioning in any way that can be considered adequate” during last year’s elections.
“One of our core functions is to provide accurate elections,” Hausmann said. “If we can’t do that, we’ve let the public down.”
HOW WE GOT THIS STORY
In the wake of a series of election errors last year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dug deep into issues surrounding the Fulton County Registration and Elections Department. By analyzing voter spreadsheets and interviewing experts, county officials, poll workers and voters, the AJC has exposed flaws in the department’s handling of elections. For this story, the newspaper obtained a copy of an unreleased investigation report by the Secretary of State’s Office, which will be the subject of a State Election Board hearing Tuesday.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office found violations of election rules and poor decisions led to election problems last year in Fulton County. Below are some of the findings, along with the county’s response:
- The allegation: Fulton failed to hire enough data-entry workers to handle voter registrations leading up to the November 2012 general election. The result: About 6,000 voters were relegated to a printed supplemental list distributed at polling places — “a very unusually high number,” according to the report.
Fulton’s response: The county hired about 40 additional workers to enter registrations. Fulton officials say the Secretary of State’s Office was late delivering more than 3,800 voter applications and said unreasonable state deadlines for entering the data also contributed to the problem.
- The allegation: Fulton updated and distributed its supplemental voter list after the initial list was produced, but some poll managers didn’t receive the lists or received them hours after polls had opened.
Fulton’s response: The county claims it distributed its voter list to nearly all poll managers in advance of the election and did not print any new lists on Election Day. It acknowledges it delivered the list late to two precincts on Election Day. But provisional ballots were available at those precincts, and no registered voter was prevented from voting.
- The allegation: The county mistakenly placed some residents — including about 350 in the Sandy Springs area — in the wrong state House and Senate districts, causing problems in the July 2012 primary election. An unknown number of voters may have voted in the wrong election.
Fulton’s response: The county acknowledges that some voters may have cast ballots in the wrong races as a result of redistricting problems. But it says the outcomes of the elections were not affected because the races either had no candidate or were uncontested or the margins of victory were big enough that the improper votes would not have made a difference.
Read a timeline of the most embarrassing moments associated with Fulton County’s election office.