Investigation: County failed to process ballot applications

ATLANTA (AP) — After an investigation found that election officials in the Georgia’s most populous county failed to process some absentee ballot applications for the June primary, the state election board on Thursday referred the matter to the state attorney general to determine whether laws were broken.

After delaying the primary elections because of the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger encouraged Georgia voters to vote by absentee ballot and sent an absentee ballot application to every active voter. That led to an unprecedented flood of applications into county election offices.

Election officials in Fulton County, which includes most of Atlanta, have previously acknowledged the challenges that caused, saying they were exacerbated by the virus outbreak and technical problems.

Chris Harvey, elections director for the secretary of state’s office, told the board during a meeting held by teleconference that election officials around the state, including in Fulton County, were “heroic” in their efforts to deal with issues caused by the virus outbreak.

“They consistently tried to adapt to changing conditions. I didn’t see any evidence of dereliction or indifference from them,” Harvey said of the Fulton County election officials. “I think they tried. Unfortunately, I believe the processes in Fulton County trying to deal with the absentee ballots was insufficient and ineffective.”

Amanda Clark Palmer, a lawyer for Fulton County, disputed any conclusions that problems were not addressed or remedied quickly enough.

“The fact of the matter is that many of the problems that this pandemic caused for Fulton County with absentee voting were addressed,” she told the board. “Fulton County successfully processed the vast majority of the absentee applications they received.”

There is enough evidence to show Fulton County received absentee ballot applications by mail and email “that were not processed and entered into the system as received or to be processed,” Frances Watson, an investigator with the secretary of state’s office told the board.

The investigation stemmed from 254 complaints the secretary of state’s office received from Fulton County residents who said they never received requested absentee ballots, Watson said, adding that many more may have been affected but did not file a complaint. At least 107 of those people told the secretary of state’s office they did not end up voting at all, she said.

Fulton County accounted for at least 75% to 80% of the complaints about absentee ballots, Watson said. The county accounts for about 11% of the state’s voters, according to state data.

Clark Palmer said the matter needs to be considered against the backdrop of what was happening at the time, with the pandemic necessitating drastic changes even as guidance from health officials was limited and constantly changing.

Fulton County received about 144,000 absentee ballot applications, she said. The county’s email system became overloaded, and there were also problems printing ballot applications sent by email so they could be processed, she said.

On top of that, COVID-19 infections among the staff that processes absentee ballots caused the office to be closed for a couple of days for sanitization, and workers took another two days off for bereavement after one of their coworkers died from the disease, county elections director Rick Barron told the board.

Staffers struggled to dig out from the backlog caused by those problems, Barron said.

County election officials have identified improvements to keep the problems from happening again, Clark Palmer said. Punitive action of any kind, including referral to the attorney general’s office, would be inappropriate in this case, she said.

“This board should conclude that there were many problems that needed to be overcome, but these problems are not man-made and did not occur because of recklessness, negligence or malfeasance on the part of any of the people” in the Fulton County elections office, she said.

Election board members said they recognize the challenges Fulton County election officials faced and applauded their efforts. But, in the end, it appears people did not receive their ballots and that isn’t acceptable and must not happen again, they said.

“There is just no margin for error anymore,” board member David Worley said before voting along with the other members present to refer the case to the attorney general’s office.

Following its own legal review, the attorney general’s office can try the case before an administrative law judge for an opinion or work out a negotiated consent order, spokeswoman Katie Byrd said.