State Elections Board Refers Fulton County Absentee Ballot Issues To Attorney General

An investigation found that Fulton County had violated Georgia code regarding processing and mailing a requested absentee ballot.

Emil Moffatt / WABE

The Georgia State Elections Board has voted to turn the findings of an investigation into the handling of absentee ballot applications in Fulton County in June over to the attorney general’s office.

The board heard details of the investigation Thursday morning in a virtual meeting, followed by a defense from a Fulton County attorney and members of the county’s elections office.

While board members expressed understanding of the difficult circumstances surrounding the June election, the unanimous vote indicated they felt Fulton needed to be held to account for the errors.

Frances Watson, investigations supervisor with the secretary of state’s office says they received 250 complaints from voters who had problems receiving their absentee ballots for June. She said of those complaints, about half were about applications sent in by mail and half were by email.

The investigation found that Fulton had violated Georgia code regarding processing and mailing a requested absentee ballot.

“If one person being denied their right to vote is to many, 250 is certainly too many,” said state elections board member David Worley, who added that there is “no margin for error when it comes to processing absentee ballot requests.”

“Our job is to decide whether there is probable cause to refer to attorney general,” said Worley. “Beyond that, this is going to be a severe problem in November if it’s not fixed.”

Fulton County lawyer Amanda Clark Palmer defended the county’s efforts under unprecedented circumstances in June. Fulton’s elections office was shut down for four days for a deep clean after some employees tested positive for COVID-19. Employees also had two days off after a colleague died of the virus.

“In light of the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic presented, the short time frame the county had to respond to the changing primary dates, and the unprecedented demand for absentee mail in voting, Fulton County performed heroically, admirably and successfully in carrying out the June 9th primary elections,” said Palmer.

Palmer also said the e-mail address printed on the absentee ballot applications by the state was an address that was set up to forward to 20 people at the county, overloading e-mail servers. The state claims it was an e-mail address on the Fulton County elections page, but Palmer pointed to an internet archive snapshot of the page from April as proof that the e-mail address was not listed on the website at that time.

She said had the e-mail listed on the website been printed on the application, many of the e-mail issues the county experienced could have been averted.

She also rejected claims that Fulton County waited until the end to process e-mail applications, a point of contention between the state and the county since the day after the June 9th primaries.

State elections director Chris Harvey also took part in the review of what happened in Fulton County.

“I didn’t see any evidence of dereliction or indifference from them,” said Harvey. “I think they tried, unfortunately, I believe the processes in Fulton County, trying to deal with the absentee ballots was insufficient and ineffective and it shifted problems from one area to another.”

Since June, Fulton has bolstered its staff to handle absentee ballot requests and put parameters into place that make applications received by e-mail easier to process. Harvey applauded those efforts and says he’s been in close contact with the county.

The state, meanwhile, is set to roll out an online portal “very soon,” that should streamline things even more, said Gabriel Sterling with the secretary of state’s office.