In a tight state House race, a few bungled ballots can mean victory or defeat

Fulton election officials reviews ballot glitches after people voted in wrong district

Votes are important. And every vote should be counted. But when you’re talking about a presidential election, when millions of people visit the polls, a few dozen voters being given the wrong ballot probably won’t change the outcome too much.

That changes at the local level, when turnout is low and every vote really counts. And in an upcoming runoff to represent House District 59, an awkwardly shaped swath of land that stretches from Atlanta and into South Fulton, there’s pressure on county and state officials to make sure people are casting ballots in the district where they reside.

About 31 East Point voters from the area near Fort McPherson were given and voted using incorrect ballots in the state House Democratic primary election that ended on May 24. Either voters who lived in the contested 59th district got a ballot for the adjacent 60th district, or vice-versa. Perhaps about 30 Atlantans from a precinct along Forrest Hills Drive just north of Hapeville also might have been given an incorrect ballot, though Fulton County election officials are still checking into that case.

Sixty suddenly seems big when you consider the primary results in the 59th: Janine Brown received 1,650 votes, David Dreyer 1,610 and Josh Noblitt 896. If Brown and Dreyer are as evenly matched in the July 26 runoff as they were primary, a handful of votes could make a difference.

Brown’s campaign manager Casie Yoder said the team was disappointed that the faulty balloting happened. “When you have these types of problems in Fulton County, which, this is not the first time something like this has happened, I think it really, it kind of makes people doubt the system,” she said.

“It’s a bad situation,” Dreyer said. “Some people have voted in a primary election and now they can’t vote in that same primary runoff.” He blames Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the elected official whose office oversees elections statewide. “This is their job to get this right,” said Dreyer.

State Rep. Keisha Waites, a Democrat who represents the 60th House district, cruised through the primary unchallenged, but she has followed up with the state and the county about the ballots. She said it is important that voters’ voices are heard.

Fulton wasn’t the only place where confusion over where district lines start and end resulted in problems in the May 24 primary. In Dougherty County, Democrat James Williams got kicked out of the state House District 151 race because he doesn’t actually live in the Albany-area district — even though county elections officials had been handing him a ballot for that district since 2012. A court said he acted in good faith, but actually lives in the next district and had been misclassified by county election officials. Williams’ ouster left the Republican incumbent unopposed.

The Fulton flub started in 2015. That year, the General Assembly tweaked 17 House districts statewide, including the boundary between House districts 59 and 60. Waites said she requested the change but later came to wish she hadn’t because it turned messy. She said she wanted a map to accommodate a person who was considering a run in the 59th — the map didn’t end up including the person’s residence, however — and also to make her long, snaky district more compact.

Fulton County Director of Registration and Elections Rick Barron admits his office made a mistake with those new maps. He said Fulton’s review of the district was not set up to catch the misclassifications around East Point. Barron said the office now knows how it has to run its audit differently.  As for the voters in Atlanta who were handed the wrong ballots, his office is still looking into the cause.

Fulton County uploaded those faulty classifications to a database in the Secretary of State’s office. Counties are in charge of registering voters, but the Secretary of State does compile a statewide list of voters.

People who drew from the state database — like Williams double-checking where he lives — saw and depended on incorrect information. And The Democratic Party of Georgia argues that the error fit into a narrative of a secretary of state who’s not doing his job.

“What we believe ought to happen is a complete audit of the Secretary of State’s voter file,” said DPG spokesman Michael Smith. He wants Kemp’s office to run the statewide list of voters and their districts against the maps drawn under the Gold Dome.

But Kemp’s office says getting data right is local government’s job. David Dove, chief of staff and legal counsel in the secretary of state’s office, said that his department conducts training sessions with county election officials, and that state officials warn about common mistakes and will continue to do so.

“But In terms of actually going back and double-checking the county’s work, it’s not something that we’re legally mandated to do and it’s not something that we’ve really been given the resources to do for 159 counties,” Dove said. He said that back in 2015, his office was already poking Fulton and other counties affected by the redraw, telling them to update their data.

Smith said it’s “disconcerting” that Fulton didn’t have its data right after a year to do it, but that the buck stops higher up with Kemp.

“Georgia code places the responsibility of maintaining the official list of registered voters for this state with the Secretary of State,” said Smith. “That’s the law — it’s Brian Kemp’s job. And it is increasingly apparent that he is incapable of handling these responsibilities.”

The DPG noticed the East Point discrepancy and e-mailed the Secretary of State’s office in February and May, but no one from the state passed the word to Fulton County until election day.

Barron, when interviewed by CL, simply sounded frustrated that no one contacted him earlier. He said he has since written letters to both Kemp and the DPG. “I said we just need better communication in the future because the only way we can have successful elections is if we’re all partners,” said Barron.

“We could have fixed it long ago. It would have been an overnight process and it would have been done.”