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Fulton County election officials have been the subject of much scrutiny from state officials and some news outlets for problems many voters had at the polls on Election Day.
Annoyed by the criticism, County Commissioner Emma Darnell defended the staff at a recent meeting.
"I did some checking on my own to see what are the error rates for elections departments as large as this one. You’re well below the average," Darnell said during the County Commission’s meeting Nov. 7.
PolitiFact Georgia was curious to determine whether Fulton’s error rates were below average, but we encountered a roadblock.
Darnell said she respects the work of PolitiFact Georgia but wouldn’t discuss anything related to the election department. She complained about biased media coverage on the subject, particularly by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The commissioner did suggest we examine Fulton and compare it with other Georgia counties.
Since Fulton is Georgia’s highest-populated county, we also thought a fair comparison would be to examine Fulton against other counties across the nation with similar populations. Without knowing exactly what the commissioner meant by "error rates," we sought ways to examine mistakes by election officials at the polls.
In Georgia, most voters cast their ballots on touch screens that are recorded on cards. Other states use other methods to record votes, so there is not a uniform way to measure errors. One uniform method to count votes, though, is provisional ballots, which appeared to be a problem for Fulton on Election Day.
The greatest complaint about Fulton came from people who said they were told their names weren’t on the county’s voter rolls. In such cases, the person is given a provisional ballot and the county then works to verify that person is registered to vote.
According to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, 9,575 provisional ballots were cast on Nov. 6 in Fulton. That was more than twice the total of provisional ballots cast in Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties combined, state data show. More than 100 people who tried to vote in Fulton have filed complaints to the state about the Nov. 6 election, the AJC reported.
Fulton elections officials were still printing and delivering supplemental voter lists to precincts hours after the polls opened, the AJC has reported. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp called the situation a "debacle."
Fulton officials have made some mistakes in recent years administering elections. In 2008, the county sent absentee ballots late to as many as 2,500 voters, the AJC reported at the time. The result: Some voters were unable to cast ballots in that year’s presidential election.
In April 2009, state records show some Fulton election workers tossed thousands of voter registration cards in a Dumpster, violating proper procedure. They also failed to retain absentee ballot applications. The State Elections Board ordered Fulton to pay a $120,000 fine, plus costs associated with an investigation, a remedial plan and other penalties.
Nearly 400,000 people voted in Fulton in the November 2012 general election, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s website. The county has 567,174 registered voters, state records show.
Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used 2008 federal elections data to compare the percentage of provisional ballots used by Fulton and nearly three dozen other U.S. counties with 400,000 to 800,000 voters. Other experts on elections also suggested we contact Stewart.
In 2008, slightly more than 400,000 Fulton residents voted in the presidential election. About 4,100 ballots were cast using provisional ballots. That’s a 1 percent rate, which was about average among those 35 counties, Stewart said. Fulton’s 1 percent was twice as high as that in Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. There were nine smaller Georgia counties with a higher percentage of provisional ballots than Fulton, Stewart found.
Those provisional ballots still needed to be checked to determine whether the vote should be counted. Nearly 1,500 of those provisional ballots in Fulton were rejected, Stewart said, which amounts to an acceptance rate of nearly 64 percent. The average acceptance rate for U.S. counties similar to Fulton was about the same, Stewart said.
Stewart looked at the number of provisional ballots cast in Fulton in the Nov. 6 election and compared it with all the people who voted.
"If there are 11,000 provisional ballots this year out of 400,000 cast, that’s a 2.8 percent rate, which is quite a bit higher than 2008," Stewart said.
Let’s recap. Fulton Commissioner Emma Darnell said the number of errors by the county’s elections staff was "well below the average." She declined to provide details to back up her claim. Research shows Fulton was in the middle among U.S. counties of comparable size when it came to provisional ballots rejected in 2008, the last presidential election. That year, twice as many provisional ballots were cast in Fulton than there were in some of Georgia’s largest counties.
From the evidence available, the county’s recent history and the high number of provisional ballots cast in this month’s election, there’s not much evidence to back up Darnell’s claim that Fulton was "well below the average." We rate her claim False.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Some absentee ballots sent late," Nov. 17, 2008.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "State wants answers in elections fiasco," Nov. 20, 2012.
Emails from MIT political science professor Charles Stewart III, Nov. 13, 2012.
Email from Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, Nov. 21, 2012.
Georgia Election Board consent order, April 1, 2009.
Georgia secretary of state Nov. 6, 2012 election results by county.
Telephone conversation with Fulton County Commissioner Emma Darnell, Nov. 13, 2012.
U.S. Census Bureau quick facts on Fulton County.
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