Six months after the November 3, 2020 election, Fulton County has failed to produce complete chain of custody documents for 18,901 vote-by-mail absentee ballots deposited by voters into drop boxes.
The Fulton County missing documentation is a little more than five percent of the estimated 333,000 vote-by-mail absentee ballots cast across Georgia in the November 3, 2020 general election for which chain of custody documentation is still missing.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has refused to collect, count, and verify the chain of custody documentation associated with an estimated 600,000 absentee vote by mail ballots deposited in drop boxes in the 2020 general election. Instead, Raffensperger has said it is a county responsibility. The Georgia Star News has filed Open Records Requests with all 159 counties in the state to obtain this documentation and report on it to the public.
Joe Biden was certified as the winner of Georgia’s 16 electoral college votes by a margin of less than 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast, 1.3 million of which were vote-by-mail: 700,000 delivered through the regular mail and 600,000 deposited in drop boxes.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that 145,000 absentee votes by mail ballots were cast in Fulton County in the November 3, 2020 general election out of more than 524,000 votes cast. Joe Biden’s margin of victory over Donald Trump in Fulton County was a resounding margin of more than 243,000 votes.
Fulton County first responded to The Star News request in January, but that data proved insufficient.
On May 3 – six months after the November 3, 2020 presidential election – Fulton County provided The Georgia Star News with a thumb drive that county officials said contained PDF files of every ballot transfer form filled out for the 40 days prior to election day November 3 as well as election day itself.
Each ballot transfer form was required by State Election Board Emergency Rule 83-1-14-0.8-.14 promulgated and approved by the State Election Board at their July 1, 2020 meeting, which set out requirements for a transfer form to document absentee ballots delivered by voters to drop boxes. These forms were required to include the date and time of pick up by the county workers that picked up absentee ballots deposited in the 37 drop boxes set up around the county and transported them to a designee of the Fulton County registrar, signed with date and time of receipt by that designee of the Fulton County registrar.
(Notably, by authorizing the use of drop boxes for November 3, 2020 election, the State Election Board usurped the Georgia General Assembly’s authority to establish the statutory rules of election administration in the state. Prior to 2021, the Georgia General Assembly had not authorized the use of drop boxes in any election in the state.)
The absentee ballot transfer form is required to include the date, time, location and number of ballots collected as well as the names and signatures of the two-person drop box ballot collection team.
Once drop box absentee ballots are “immediately transported” to the county registrar, as the Emergency Rule requires, the registrar or a designee is required to sign the ballot transfer form upon receipt from the collection team.
The thumb drive provided to The Star News on May 3 by Fulton County officials contained an Excel spreadsheet with a summary of every ballot transfer form collected at each of the 37 drop boxes in Fulton County over the 41 collection days beginning on September 24, 2020 and ending on November 3, 2020. There were from one to three collections from each drop box on November 3. For every collection date for each drop box, two data points are included: the number of absentee ballots collected and the number of absentee ballot applications collected.
The spreadsheet provided by Fulton County contains 43 rows (one for each collection at a drop box) and 74 columns (Each of the 37 drop boxes have two columns–one for the number of absentee ballots collected, and one for the number of absentee ballot applications collected.)
You can see an example of the absentee ballot transfer forms provided to The Star News on May 3 by Fulton County officials documenting the chain of custody for absentee ballots picked up at two drop boxes on October 14, 2020 below.
The two-person team of A. Kennon and B. Heard picked up 11 absentee ballots from the Mechanicville drop box at 12:27 and delivered them to T.J. the county registrar or designee, at 4:49. That same team picked up either 19 or 13 absentee ballots from the Southeast drop box at 12:38 and delivered them to T.J. at 4:52. The ballot count was changed from 19 to 18, but recorded as 13 on the spreadsheet – most likely because of the misinterpretation of the “B” for Ballots. Under “Notes,” someone wrote in 19 ballots, scratched out 19 and then wrote in 18.
Using the spreadsheet provided by Fulton County, the thumb drive provided to The Star News on May 3 by Fulton County should contain absentee ballot transfer forms documenting the chain of custody for a total of 43 separate collections from 37 drop boxes – for a total of 1,591 separate drop box collections in Fulton County between September 24, 2020 and November 3, 2020, documenting the chain of custody for all absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes in Fulton County.
The Star News has reviewed each and every ballot transfer form provided by Fulton County on May 3, and can confirm that chain of custody documents – absentee ballot transfer forms – have been produced by Fulton County for a little more than 1,100 drop box collections a total of 59,042 absentee ballots.
However, a thorough review of the PDF files provided to The Star News by Fulton County officials on May 3, shows that there are no absentee ballot transfer forms for 385 out of the 1,591 drop box collections that took place in Fulton County between September 24, 2020 and November 3, 2020, which accounted for 18,901 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes, according to the Fulton County spreadsheet.
The Star News does not have a complete count of the actual number of absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes in Fulton County due to inconsistencies in the data provided by Fulton County.
The sum of the 59,042 absentee ballots accounted for in absentee ballot transfer forms that document the approximately 1,100 drop box collections for which Fulton County provided documentation and the 18,901 absentee ballots the Fulton County spreadsheet said were documented in ballot transfer forms documenting 385 collections which have not been produced is 77,943.
However, The Star News does not have confidence in that number, for several reasons.
First, the spreadsheet delivered by Fulton County officials to The Star News contains a math error due to the double counting of two drop boxes – North Training Center and Auburn Avenue Research Library. The Fulton County’s spreadsheet inaccurately added its own data, showing 79,460 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes in a summary column, when the actual sum within the database was 75,449.
Second, the manual count of the approximately 1,100 drop box collections of absentee ballots documented in absentee ballot transfer forms completed by The Star News was 59,042, which was more than 2,700 greater than the corresponding data contained in the Fulton County spreadsheet, which totaled 56,315.
You can see a copy of that Fulton County spreadsheet, in which The Star News has highlighted in yellow the 385 absentee ballot collections and the associated 18,901 absentee ballots for which no chain of custody documents have been produced by Fulton County more than six months after the November 3, 2020 election.
However, as The Star News will report in subsequent stories in this series, a number of problems are associated with those produced absentee ballot transfer forms which provide chain of custody documentation for 59,042 absentee ballots.
In The Star News’ analysis of the drop box absentee ballot transfer forms received to date, there were repeated issues with Fulton County meeting the “immediately transported” requirement relative to the ballots, which was reported on here.
Then, more than 190 times the Fulton County daily count spreadsheet of drop box absentee ballots differed from the ballot count that is documented on the transfer form.
A quick review of the files, however, revealed that while documents were provided during the period of September 29 to November 3, no documents were provided for six dates – September 30 as well as October 7, 9, 10, 11 and 20.
Additionally, Fulton County’s daily ballot count spreadsheet shows drop box absentee ballot counts as early as September 24, which means a small number of transfer forms have also not been provided for the period of September 24 through 28.
This incomplete and inconsistent record of chain of custody documents related to absentee ballots persists more than six months after the November 3, 2020 election, and almost five months after The Star News made its initial open records request for the documents to Fulton County election officials and despite Georgia’s Open Records Act O.C.G.A. 50-18-70 et. seq., which, according to Prosecuting Attorneys General of Georgia, requires a response to an open records request within three business days.
In December 2020, The Georgia Star News submitted an open records request to Fulton County officials for the absentee ballot drop box transfer forms from the November 2020 election.
On January 22, Fulton County provided two PDF files with names ending in “BX_1” and “BX_3” that included records for 36,635 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes.
In addition to the appearance of missing a PDF file that’s name ended in “BX_2,” the number of ballots was significantly less than what was expected for Fulton County, The Star reported.
A subsequent open records request was filed with Fulton County on April 8 by The Star News, which was responded to a week later, extending the response time to April 19.
On April 19, the large size of the file required more time for review, according to Fulton County Registration and Elections, with a new anticipated completion date of April 23.
On the morning of May 3, The Star News picked up the thumb drive that purportedly contained a re-scan of all of the requested documents.
On Tuesday, The Star News asked Fulton County officials to provide the still missing chain of custody documentation.
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