As candidates question June 9 election results, DeKalb Elections Board moves on
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DeKalb County, GA — On June 25, Ruth “The Truth” Stringer held a press conference outside of the Dekalb County Voter Registration & Elections Office.
Stringer lost the Democratic primary election for sheriff to incumbent Sheriff Melody Maddox, but made the Aug. 11 runoff election for the special election to complete the term of former Sheriff Jeff Mann.
Stringer asked the Georgia Secretary of State, the Dekalb County Board of Commissioners and the Dekalb County Board of Elections to halt the ongoing certification process of the June 9 Special and Primary Election. She has several concerns about how the election was conducted and alleges the county mishandled ballots. She’s not the only candidate asking questions about the process for counting votes.
Despite these concerns, the Board of Elections unanimously certified the results on June 25. The Georgia Secretary of State is investigating the issues that plagued the election, which was repeatedly delayed by COVID-19 pandemic and marred by precinct closures, long lines and malfunctioning machines on Election Day. The election also involved the use of new voting machines supplied by Dominion Voting Systems and counting tens of thousands of mail-in ballots cast by voters who wanted to skip lines and avoid potential exposure to coronavirus on Election Day.
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So far, elections officials have not responded to questions Decaturish asked about issues raised by Stringer and other candidates, including judicial candidate Beth Beskin, who also lost her race to join the state Supreme Court. Beskin is concerned that elections officials in DeKalb County and other counties missed votes where the voter circled a candidate’s name or used a checkmark instead of filling in the entire oval on the ballot. One official involved in adjudicating disputed ballots said she is confident that the results are accurate.
That Elections Board’s decision to certify the results did little to quell the criticisms about the election.
Stringer has accused elections officials of trying to “deliberately manipulate and possibly corrupt the entire process by steering and assigning votes to favored candidates.”
“I questioned the decision along with other irregularities, of the DeKalb County Officials use of unauthorized scanning equipment which is prohibited by Georgia law 21-2-36(c),” Stringer said. “In fact, there is a $100,000 penalty that should be charged the vendor for selling the equipment. The scanner caused thousands of votes to be rejected. I am deeply concerned about the use of unauthorized scanning equipment to score the votes while appearing to manually manipulate and influence absentee ballots and precinct outcomes weighted to illegally assign ghost votes to pre-selected candidates and in turn manipulate the outcome of the election process.”
Stringer also produced pictures of ballots that were apparently unattended in the Elections Office when votes were being counted and photos of temporary workers with access to “thousands of blank ballots [who were] transcribing votes without proper oversight,” according to the Champion newspaper.
Stringer’s campaign and the campaign of Republican sheriff candidate Harold Dennis also allege the county lost track of a voter ballot card, according to the Champion newspaper article.
Beskin on June 23 sent an email to the DeKalb County Elections Board asking the board to delay certification of the results.
“I am writing to petition and request that the Dekalb County Board of Voter Registration and Elections not certify the June 9 elections results until all paper ballots are adjudicated and all previously-uncounted votes are counted,” her email says. “Because I don’t believe Dekalb County has adjudicated ballots with marks in the ambiguous range or the uncounted group, I think there are many Dekalb County votes yet to be counted. I make this request as both a candidate in that election as well as a Georgia voter.
“I make this request because of concerns that Dekalb County may have failed to count many votes when it scanned and tabulated absentee, provisional and UOCAVA ballots, i.e., the paper ballots. My concerns stem from my understanding that the Dominion software is calibrated to consider any ballot marking as ambiguous if between 14% and 28% of the oval is marked. I also believe that Dekalb County did not adjudicate any ballots containing only ambiguous marks and adjudicated only those ballots that contained one or more overvotes.”
Beskin said she wants every Georgian to be confident that their vote counted.
“Everybody in Georgia wants a level of confidence that every vote is discernably marked. If you can look at it and discern what the voter intent was, those votes should be counted,” she said. “All Georgians want a comfort level that they are being counted.”
Stringer said she also shares Beskin’s concerns about some ballots not being counted even though they are clearly marked.
According to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, if the machine can’t determine a voter’s intent, it’s supposed to kick the ballot out for review. But local election boards have the ability to calibrate the sensitivity of their machines.
Because DeKalb County did not respond to questions from Decaturish, it’s unclear whether the county increased the sensitivity of its machines to flag more votes for review.
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Marilyn Marks, Executive Director of the Coalition for Good Governance, believes the DeKalb County has a problem on its hands.
“To allow the counties to decide what votes should count and not count based on a computer setting would be crazy,” Marks said.
She said that the issue is complex, but it’s important nonetheless. She said state law requires that any ballot that can be read should be counted.
“DeKalb refused to look at what could be thousands of uncounted votes,” Marks said. She said allowing counties to calibrate the machines could allow them to set the sensitivity of machines even higher than 28 percent. She said ballots with lighter marks likely weren’t even flagged.
She also said these settings were intended for in-person voting with hand-marked paper ballots, not mail-in ballots.
The idea is for the voter to correct the ballot while they’re at the polling place, which they cannot do with a mail-in ballot.
“The law is very clear that if it can be interpreted, it counts as a vote,” Marks said.
Marks said there’s “no way to know” how many ballots the county might have missed.
Elizabeth Burns, a member of the DeKalb County Democratic Party, led the election procedure subcommittee for the DeKalb County Democratic Party and helped to adjudicate contested ballots. She said there were somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 ballots that were adjudicated.
In Georgia, the county Democratic party appoints one person and the Republican party appoints one person to review ballots where there’s a question about a voter’s intent.
“Sometimes the judgment is we can’t determine [the intent],” Burns said. “Other times, we were able to override the software.”
She agrees with Marks that all votes should be counted. In her view, DeKalb County counted almost all of them.
“I think that we caught the sheer majority of votes approaching 100 percent,” Burns said. “The reason I don’t think we’re missing a ton of those is the scanning software was pretty good about highlighting checkmarks. If someone used a checkmark for the full ballot, that would get kicked to us for review.”
Burns elaborated on her views in a Facebook post.
“Some people are worried that there are a huge number of ballots with checkmarks that we are missing,” she said. “I am not because after looking at thousands of ballots I can recognize one consistent thing: people vote the same way and the software catches the majority of checkmarks. Checkmarks are highly correlated with other checkmarks so the weakness of the software to miss 5% of them doesn’t mean we’re missing 5% of votes that used checkmarks.”
Burns said she examined other races and it supported her conclusions.
“To double-check this, I looked at the data of several 2020 races and compared the in-person drop off to the absentee drop off,” Burns said. “In no race do 100% of voters vote but by comparing in-person and absentee percentages we could see if maybe we were systematically excluding a high number of absentee votes. I’m going to use Michelle Henson’s seat as an example since it is far down-ballot and she’s had several competitive races over the years. Among 2020 voters for Henson’s seat the percentage for in person was 94% of all ballots. Among absentee voters, it was 92%. So there is a little variation but maybe people who use paper drop off faster. I don’t know that so I went to 2018 and took a look at her competitive race then. In-person was 91% but in this race, the absentee percentage was 83% so it may be reasonable to assume that absentee drop off is greater than in-person drop-off. I repeated this for a few more races across Dekalb between 2016 and 2020 and I’m reasonably confident that absentee drop off is always greater than in-person drop-off. This makes me feel confident that we captured the majority of absentee votes. I still can’t rule out we missed a few but I am not concerned that this would change the outcome of any Dekalb 2020 primary race.”
She said the drop-off helps explain why Stringer made a runoff to fill Mann’s unexpired term but didn’t make the primary runoff. She also notes that the Sheriff’s special election was on every ballot, while the primary was only on the Democratic party ballot.
“The special election was on every single ballot,” Burns said. “It was the last race on everyone’s ballot.”
Burns said she couldn’t completely rule out that there may have been missed votes.
“There’s a lot of things I think could be improved with DeKalb elections,” Burns said. “I feel secure we caught the majority of votes, approaching 100 percent, but I can’t rule out we missed a checkmark here and there.”
So is missing a vote here and there acceptable?
“I thought about this a lot,” Burns said. “What is the obligation to capture every single vote? That’s why I started looking at the numbers and seeing the dropoff. … We do recounts when things are too close. Did I think we missed enough votes that it would change the outcome of any of the elections? I don’t personally think that we did.”
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