Fulton County election officials have failed to meet a second response date they set to provide The Georgia Star News with complete chain of custody documents for absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes during the November 3, 2020, general election. For a third time, Fulton County has extended its response date, this time to August 6, 2021.
Fulton County’s communication about the third extension comes more than eight months and five follow-up requests after The Star News filed an initial open records request on December 1, 2020, for the drop box transfer forms that document the critical chain of custody of absentee ballots deposited in 37 drop boxes installed throughout Fulton County for the 41 days of the November 2020 election period.
On August 2, at 11:36:42 A.M. Fulton County Legal Assistant Shana Eatmon emailed The Star News, “Please allow an extension to Friday, August 6, as we continue ot [sic] to work with Registration & elections for response.”
The August 2 email from Eatmon follows one from 9:45:54 A.M. on Wednesday, July 21, in which she extended the response date to The Star News request for a second time. At the time, Eatmon said, “This request has been extended to Friday (July 23), as Registration and Elections continue to review this request.”
The second extension of July 21, The Star News reported, came after Fulton County failed to meet their previously set response date of July 15.
On July 12, Eatmon responded to a June 22 open records request with a system-assigned tracking number of R004378-062221, apologizing that the request was not responded to and extending the response date to July 15 for processing through Registration & Elections.
The only reason that The Star News submitted an open records request on June 22 was because Fulton County failed to respond to an open records request of June 18.
The Star News’s request of June 18 simply asked for the same documents that the taxpayer-funded Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) News said they received from Fulton County in a story with now conflicting publication dates and times of June 16 at 2:46 p.m. and June 17 at 3:11 p.m., declaring that Fulton County is not missing ballots or hundreds of drop box custody forms.
The GPB News article came after The Star News report, “Fulton County Election Official Admits Chain of Custody Documents Missing for 2020 Absentee Ballots Deposited in Drop Boxes,” published Monday, June 14.
The Star News report was based on a June 9 email from Secretary for the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections Mariska Bodison advising that in reviewing the documents they provided and their daily log, they “noticed a few forms are missing” and that “some procedural paperwork may have been misplaced.”
The cause, according to Bodison, was COVID.
“[I]t seems when 25 plus core personnel were quarantined due to positive COVID-19 outbreak at the EPC, some procedural paperwork may have been misplaced,” advised Bodison in her email to The Star News.
The revelation by Fulton County’s Bodison is the only known instance of an election official admitting to irregularities in the November 2020 election.
The news caught the attention of former President Donald Trump, who recognized the investigative efforts of The Georgia Star News and availed himself at his first post-election rally in Wellington, Ohio for an exclusive interview with The Star News.
GPB News’s Stephen Fowler said in his article that he was able to obtain the documents within just a few days of his request.
Fowler reported that after he “asked the county Monday, [June 14, 2021] about the forms not included in the Georgia Star’s request, elections staff located all but eight of the more than 1,500 forms, sent them to state investigators and provided them to GPB News on a flash drive.”
Even after providing detailed analysis that included the spreadsheet they used to track absentee ballot collections from drop boxes, Fulton County’s Bodison disagreed with the number of absentee ballots that The Star News documented were missing and requested that The Star News provide information on how the number was derived so that they could investigate.
“We do not agree with the 19,000 you referenced in your inquiry. Please advise at (sic) how you derived at this number and we will investigate.”
The Star News made the determination on the number of missing transfer forms by using a Fulton County spreadsheet, “Absentee Ballot Drop Box – Daily County – November 3 2020.xlsx,” that documented the absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications collected from 37 drop boxes over the 41 days of voting.
According to Fulton County’s spreadsheet, there were about 1,500 transfer forms and 78,000 absentee ballots collected from drop boxes in the November 2020 election. Fulton County had yet to provide The Star News with 385 – or 24 percent – of the transfer forms representing 18,901 absentee ballots.
The Star News responded to Fulton County on June 18, providing the information that Bodison requested and asking for the same documents that GPB News said they had received from the county by 5 p.m. on June 21.
When that request went unanswered by Fulton County, another request was generated by Fulton County’s system on June 22, when The Star News followed up on the June 18 request, the full text of which can be read here.
Dear Mariska Bodison,
On June 18, 2021, the open records request below was submitted with the purpose of:
1) Responding to your question regarding how The Georgia Star News derived at 19,000 absentee ballots for the 385 missing drop box transfer forms;
2) Requesting the 385 drop box transfer forms that Fulton County has yet to provide in response to our multiple open records requests. Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) News reported that they had received the same records The Georgia Star News requested within 48 hours of their open records request on June 14, 2021.
The Georgia Star News requested, but did not receive, a response to this request by 5 p.m. ET Monday, June 21, 2021.
Please advise the status of the requested documents, that would apparently be readily available since they were provided to GPB News last week.
The Georgia Star News
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For your convenience, here is a copy of that previous request (R004285-061821):
Dear Mariska Bodison,
Thank you for your response and advising that critical chain of custody documentation for absentee ballots collected from drop boxes in Fulton County is missing.
1. With regard to the 19,000 absentee ballots for which the drop box transfer forms are missing, the number was derived from the documentation Fulton County previously provided in person on May 03, 2021, via a thumb drive.
Included on the thumb drive was an Excel spreadsheet file titled “Absentee Ballot Drop Box – Daily Count – November 3 2020.xlsx”
The Georgia Star News compared the transfer forms Fulton County provided on the May 03, 2021, thumb drive as well as the two files Fulton County provided on January 22, 2021, titled “ORR_7528-2020_DROP_BX1” and “ORR_7528-2020_DROP_BX3” to the Fulton County spreadsheet.
The Georgia Star News marked up the Fulton County “Absentee Ballot Drop Box – Daily Count – November 3 2020.xlsx” spreadsheet, highlighting in yellow each date and drop box location for which The Georgia Star News did not receive at least one corresponding absentee ballot transfer form.
The Georgia Star News’ highlighted version of the spreadsheet, titled “Copy of Absentee Ballot Drop Box – Daily Count – November 3 2020.xlsx,” is attached.
On rows 57 and 58 you will find the total number of transfer forms that are missing and the corresponding number of absentee ballots that Fulton County indicates were deposited into the specific drop boxes on those dates.
According to the information Fulton County provided via the “Absentee Ballot Drop Box – Daily Count – November 3 2020.xlsx” spreadsheet, at least 385 absentee ballot drop box transfer forms are missing, which Fulton County indicates represents 18,901 absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes.
We hope that this explanation of Fulton County’s information will assist in your investigation of the missing absentee ballot drop box chain of custody documentation so that you may promptly fulfill our Open Records Requests.
2. Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) reported Wednesday, June 16, 2021, that “after GPB News asked the [Fulton] county Monday about the forms not included in the Georgia Star’s records request, elections staff located all but 8 of the more than 1,500 forms” and “provided them to GPB News on a flash drive.”
The Georgia Star News requests your response to the following requests.
A) Provide to The Georgia Star News the absentee ballot drop box transfer forms that were provided to Georgia Public Broadcasting that have not yet been provided to The Georgia Star News.
B) An explanation as to why the previously “missing” absentee ballot drop box transfer forms were provided to Georgia Public Broadcasting within 48 hours of their request on Monday, June 14, 2021, but not to The Georgia Star News, despite the incomplete responses to our three open records requests dating back to December 2020.
C) An explanation as to why GPB was able to receive from Fulton County within 48 hours of their request on Monday, June 14, 2021, the same records that The Georgia Star News initially requested in December 2020 and has received from Fulton County three incomplete responses.
The Georgia Star News respectfully requests your response to these requests by end of business Monday, June 21, 2021.
The Georgia Star News
Of the approximately 76 percent of the chain of custody documents received from Fulton County, detailed analysis by The Star News determined that 85 percent of the 59,000 absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes represented on the transfer forms were not “immediately transported” to the county registrar as required by the State Election Board emergency rule promulgated in July 2020, and 5 percent were recorded as delivered before they were picked up, The Star News reported.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Star News Network, where she covers stories for The Georgia Star News, The Tennessee Star, The Ohio Star and The Arizona Sun Times.