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Fulton admits ‘meltdown’ over 2008 absentee ballots
Fulton County officials admit serious violations of election rules for mishandling thousands of absentee ballots in 2008, attorneys said today.
Hundreds of voters may have been disenfranchised because Fulton screwed up processing requests for mail-in ballots for the November election, state officials say. Investigators found that more than 4,000 absentee applications piled up in the last few days before the election, making it necessary for Fulton to use overnight delivery, costing $287,000, to get ballots to voters in time.
Details of Fulton County’s official response to the state investigation were unavailable today because the case remains active.
But Fulton County’s lawyer in the case, A. Lee Parks Jr., “essentially admitted” the violations in his 41-page response to the board, Stefan Ritter, a senior assistant attorney general, told the State Elections Board this morning.
“We’re not contesting violations” regarding the absentee ballots, Parks then told the board. Fulton County may disagree on the magnitude of the violations, he said, “but we’re not here to be combative about this issue.”
Moreover, local election officials acknowledge that Fulton’s handling of absentee ballots was “unacceptable, unsatisfactory and embarrassing,” said former Georgia appeals court judge Norman Underwood (right), who is monitoring Fulton’s election overhaul on the state’s behalf.
State investigators also found that Fulton elections workers failed to count absentee votes properly in the days after the election. Ballots were left out in the open and unsecured, procedures for verifying and duplicating ballots were not followed, and poll workers were allowed to come and go as they pleased while votes were being counted.
Overall, Fulton’s performance represented “a complete meltdown of potentially catastrophic proportions had we had close elections,” Elections Board member Randy Evans said.
Parks ticked off solutions that new Fulton Elections Manager Barry Garner hopes to launch in the next 60 days:
— An automated process for handling absentee ballots that “essentially removes human error from the process” (Pitney-Bowes will provide the system on a trial basis this November),
— Cross-training of other county employees who could be brought in to help in the last few weeks before an election,
— Personnel changes in key management positions in the elections office, and
— A mandatory review process that workers would have to pass “to justify continued employment.”
Fulton officials today asked for more time to make fixes before addressing the state investigation and possible penalties. But members of the State Elections Board directed lawyers to schedule a trial before an administrative law judge while trying to negotiate a settlement with Fulton.
“My general experience in life,” Evans said, “has been that things don’t really happen until you have a fixed deadline.”