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By Willoughby Mariano November 5, 2010

Fulton elections chief pledged quick tallies

You might say that a politician didn't make this election season's boldest promise. The head of Fulton County's Department of Registration and Elections did. 

In an article Tuesday in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Barry Garner vowed his office would report its results at a decent hour.

"By 11:30 p.m., we'll be finished, " Garner said. "That's my pledge."

We gasped. Fulton? Finishing early? Did he remember the 2008 elections?

This is AJC PolitiFact Georgia's 100th take on the truth. The trusty Truth-O-Meter debuted in June, just as the state's primary battles began to heat up. Therefore there are few more fitting ways to celebrate this milestone than by fact-checking results from our first election season.

So let's review Fulton's problems in 2008.

Back then, another elections director was in charge. Absentee ballot processing went so slowly that Fulton County had to hire FedEx to ship nearly 4,000 ballots to voters overnight. FedEx billed the county more than $300,000.

Poll workers counted absentee ballots for 53 hours after closing. State election rules require they stay on site until the count is finished, but crews were so exhausted they were sent home.
The Georgia Secretary of State's Office blamed poor staffing and procedures.

Because Fulton's count lagged, the U.S. Senate race took an odd turn. Democratic challenger Jim Martin and Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss continued to campaign after the general election even though it was unclear whether they would compete in a runoff.

They did go to a runoff, which Chambliss won.

Fulton hired Garner the next year, after a half-dozen other candidates either rejected the job or didn't work out for other reasons.

Garner, who came from Florida's Miami-Dade County, promised major changes.

"We are not going to be the laughingstock of the election community anymore, " Garner said. "I guarantee you that. We will turn this thing round."

Still, even before Tuesday, Fulton ran into trouble. Garner's office sent absentee ballots with incorrect precinct information to more than 200 voters.

That's why his confidence piqued our curiosity. Could Fulton really make its self-imposed 11:30 p.m. deadline? Was Garner capable of a turnaround? 

We called Garner the day after the election.

He clarified that he promised if the polls closed as scheduled at 7 p.m., his office would post results online by 11:30 p.m. He didn't tell poll managers about the goal. 

On Tuesday, 329 of the county's 333 precincts had sent their results to the Election Department's servers by Garner's deadline. That's 98.7 percent.

It takes five or 10 minutes to transfer them to the Web, so numbers from slower precincts likely came online between 11:35 and 11:40 p.m.

"With a few tweaks, we can meet our goal," he said.

The four precincts that didn't make it experienced unusually high turnout. They remained open until the last voter in line by 7 p.m. finished. That happened at 9 p.m.

Once voting is done, poll workers must complete state-mandated procedures before sending their results.

There were no voting machine problems, Garner said. The county began transmitting its full election night tally to the Secretary of State's Office by about 1:30 a.m.

They arrived by about 2 a.m., Secretary of State spokesman Matt Carrothers confirmed. There were no problems with transmission, tabulation or other issues.

"This was pretty much in line with ... larger-population counties," Carrothers said.

Fulton has made other improvements since 2008. The absentee ballots that caused so many problems were almost all done Tuesday night, Garner said. Those that weren't took extra time because they were twice as long.

"Still, we should have been finished," Garner said.

The election isn't officially over, of course. Military and overseas absentee ballots aren't due until the close of business Friday.

And Garner is already thinking about the future. He hopes to meet his goal in 2012.

"If we can do it in Florida, we can do it in Georgia," Garner said.

We hope so. It can't get worse than Florida, home of the hanging chad.

Overall, we found that Fulton County did well.

The only precincts that missed the 11:30 p.m. cutoff kept their doors open late because of high turnout. Garner's promise was that he'd be finished by then if polls closed as scheduled, so it's fair to say he met his goal.  

Since workers counted almost all absentee ballots Tuesday night, results from precincts that closed on schedule arrived on time. Tallies appeared on the Web within minutes of deadline, and the department came extremely close to meeting Garner's high expectations.

That makes Garner's statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Elections chief guarantees quick results," Nov. 2, 2010

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Fulton elections chief set to work," July. 7, 2009

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Fulton's ballot rush costly," Nov. 25, 2008

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "State upset that Fulton's ballot count continues," Nov. 7, 2008

Interview, Barry Garner, Fulton County director of registration and elections, Nov. 3, 2010

Interview, Matt Carrothers, spokesman, Georgia Secretary of State's Office, Nov. 3, 2010

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