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Georgia oversight panel ruminates on 2020 election hiccups as 2024 showdowns loom

The Georgia Election Board voted Tuesday to reprimand Fulton County and appoint an independent monitor for the 2024 election for violating state law while conducting a recount of the 2020 presidential election.

In a 2-1 vote on the panel that oversees how counties conduct elections, members agreed to admonish Fulton County and order a monitor for this year’s campaigns. That allows the county to avoid paying a fine or having the attorney general investigate the double-counting of 3,075 ballots and other allegations of irregularities during the 2020 presidential recount. Georgia election officials determined mistakes in 2020 by county election workers would not have changed the outcome.

Georgia Secretary of State investigators said they are unable to determine how many of the invalid ballots were included in the results used to certify the 2020 election. Democrat Joe Biden narrowly defeated GOP nominee Donald Trump by nearly 12,000 votes.

State officials reported that there were 3,075 duplicate ballot images, but they were unable to determine how many of the ones cast were tabulated in the recount. The court case revolves around apparent discrepancies between the initial recount totals in November 2020 and the corrected totals released a day later by Fulton County.

According to Fulton’s initial results, Trump received 137,240 votes out of 524,659, while Biden received 381,144. Following a recount requested by Trump’s lawyers, the final results led to the former president gaining seven additional votes and Biden losing 932.

In January 2021, Fulton officials acknowledged failures to properly back up data to servers during the recount. A Fulton election official told the state election officials that the discrepancy likely resulted from the mishandling of ballot batches and that changes have since been made to separate ballots once they’re scanned.

Election board member Ed Lindsey Jr. offered a motion Tuesday to reprimand Fulton and appoint an independent monitor who could be in place prior to the November general election.

If the state election and Fulton officials fail to agree on who to hire as the election monitor, he said, then he would recommend in July that the board ask the state attorney general to take the case.

“My purpose here is not to let it ride but to move this matter forward so that we can have some assurance regarding the 2024 election,” said Lindsey, a Republican and former lawmaker who was appointed to the state election board by the Georgia House of Representatives in January 2022.

State Election Board member Janice Johnston, an appointee of the Georgia Republican Party, voted against the motion, citing the need for a more comprehensive examination of Fulton’s election operations.

“With over 140 violations of election laws and rules, it would be a travesty not to refer this to the Attorney General and let this ride,” she said.

Charlene McGowan, general counsel under Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, said that despite the recount discrepancies, the election results are still accurate after being counted three times. That includes the initial tally by the Dominion Voting Systems equipment, a full-hand count and another rescanning of ballots, which led to the dispute about the double counting of ballots.

“The paper ballot is the record of the vote,” McGowan said. “It is the most important document and it is what is used to tabulate the vote and to tabulate the results. As long as we have that paper ballot, we have the paper trail that accurately records the voter’s choice.”

Georgia’s Secretary of State opened an investigation after a complaint was filed in July 2022 by Georgia resident Joseph Rossi and Kevin Moncla, a far-right Texas activist, alleging that Fulton County failed to correctly conduct a machine recount and other irregularities tied to the 2020 election.

The complaint also says that the county is missing more than 17,000 ballot images that were requested for inspection from the 2020 election.

The state Legislature passed a law requiring ballot images to be kept as public record after the 2020 election and state officials said that not having all of the ballot images from that year doesn’t mean that the votes weren’t correctly tabulated.

Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, described Tuesday’s board meeting as a forum for  conflicting information provided by people with an ax to grind, officials with a reason to be defensive including  the secretary of state and Fulton, as well as members of the Georgia election board.

Good Governance is a lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit contesting the security of Georgia’s electronic voting machines due to cybersecurity threats.

“The entire debate about the Rossi complaint concerning materially inaccurate Fulton 2020 audit tallies, and machine recount tallies, including thousands of double-counted votes made one thing crystal clear—the State Election Board is failing in its investigative duties by assigning the SOS office to investigate election code violations where the SOS office itself is accused of wrongdoing, as in this case,” Marks said in a statement.

“The Board’s investigations must be conducted independent of interested parties, to provide objectivity and transparency.”

Marks said that the dispute about the 17,000 missing ballot images could be resolved after Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday signed an election bill allowing the public to inspect paper ballots.

“However, thanks to the legislation Gov. Kemp signed today, the truth about the 2020 count, likely still confirming Biden’s win, will come out.  Given that the public will be able to require a  new scan of the ballots themselves, the SOS claims that they cannot determine whether ballots were double counted will be shown to be false, with many ballots for both candidates being double counted in the official machine recount. The ballots representing the 17,000+ final votes where the images cannot be located,  can be examined now and their existence verified.”

According to state election investigators, Fulton might not have all of the ballot images, but each of the original paper ballots are under seal due to pending litigation

In 2023, the election board rejected a state takeover of Fulton ballot counting following a lengthy performance review after the tumultuous 2020 presidential election brought some unwanted national attention to Georgia’s most populated county.

The independent panel report did not find any proof of election workers engaging in intentional misconduct but noted Fulton elections new leadership role is now resolving past problems with managerial oversight, disorganization and mistakes in recounting ballots.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder

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