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At Least 8,000 Absentee Ballots In Georgia Rejected For Coming In Late

Stephen Fowler/GPB

While a record 1.1 million Georgians voted by mail in this year’s June 9 primary, thousands more ballots were not counted because they came in after the Election Day deadline.

According to the state’s absentee voting records, more than 11,000 mail-in ballots were rejected this cycle, and 8,479 were received after polls closed, with the late ballots about 0.74% of the total absentee ballots returned.

But an analysis by GPB News and the Georgia News Lab shows the actual number of late ballots is higher than reported, as some counties did not enter all of their rejections -- or lower, as some erroneously reported unreturned ballots as late.

Polk County reported an almost 13-fold increase from the number of rejected ballots it received in the 2018 general election to this year’s primary. That’s because Polk, unlike other counties, marked ballots that were mailed out but not returned by voters as rejected in the state’s election system, a county elections official said.

RELATED: Breaking Down The 1.1 Million Votes Already Cast In Georgia’s June 9 Primary

Only 15 of the 779 ballots listed as rejected for coming in after the deadline were actually late.

Out of 159 counties in Georgia, 49 reported receiving zero ballots after the 7 p.m. Election Day deadline.

Fulton County, Georgia’s most populous, reported no late ballots, but officials said in a follow-up interview the number was actually 951.

Fulton County Registration Chief Ralph Jones Sr. said the county sent letters to voters saying their ballots were rejected,  but did not record those ballots in the state’s ElectioNet reporting system.

“I don’t think we usually put that into our reporting,” elections supervisor Rick Barron said. “Do other counties?”

This is not the first time Fultonelection officials did not upload their late ballot rejections. In both the 2016 and 2018 general elections, the county also reported zero ballots received after the deadline.

IN-DEPTH: Fulton, State Chart Path Forward To Fix Election Issues

Other counties that reported no late ballots, such as Jasper and Dade, also said they actually received ballots after the deadline and sent notices of rejection to voters but had not yet entered the late votes into the state’s ElectioNet reporting system.

The secretary of state’s office said in a statement that while not required, it is best practice for late ballot rejections to be entered into the state’s system and that the law required those voters to be notified.

Some Georgians were unaware their votes did not count.

MORE: Georgia Elections Officials Navigate Sea Of Absentee Applications While Polling Places Back Out

Gwinnett voter Michelle Black was surprised to learn her ballot had been rejected.

Black, who was voting by mail for the first time, said she did not receive her ballot until June 5, the Friday before the election. She said she returned it by overnight mail through the U.S. postal service on June 8, and tracking information reviewed by GPB News and the News Lab shows the ballot delivered at 9:29 a.m. on Election Day.

Gwinnett County Elections Supervisor Kristi Royston said the ballot was not received by the elections office until June 10, which is why the ballot was marked as late.

Royston said mail is delivered to a centralized county mailroom before being distributed to different departments, and said voters concerned about mailing in their ballot by the deadline can also take advantage of secure drop boxes located around the county.

“If you’re going to mail it, the sooner the better, and if you’re going to drop it off, it needs to be in by 7 p.m. on Election Day,” Royston said.

Still, Black did not understand why her vote did not count.

“I get that that is when they finally got to it, but it was sent next-day for delivery on Tuesday,” Black said.

Cobb County voter James Hillier was not aware that his ballot had been rejected when reporters spoke to him on June 22, nearly two weeks after the election.

“I sent it back when they said to send it back, and I don’t know what more I could do to get it there before the deadline,” Hillier said. “I would think that if they are to count mail-in ballots, they should count as long as they were sent out on time, not whether or not they were received on time.”

Gia Johnson and her husband Clifford Johnson had their ballots rejected for being late in DeKalb County.

“I’m devastated,” said Gia Johnson.

Clifford Johnson said he had tried taking their ballots to a drop box but couldn’t find the location. He ended up mailing the ballots instead.

“I can never tell when it’s going to be received,” he said. “It depends on the post office you go to … that’s a no-winner there, what could I really do?”

The Johnsons said they considered voting in person but after seeing the long lines on Election Day and people not wearing masks, they were glad they didn’t.

The timely return and processing of absentee ballots has become a hot-button issue nationwide as the coronavirus continues to alter the way we vote.

On April 6, the Supreme Court ruled in the Wisconsin primary that ballots must be received by county elections offices by Election Day, reversing an order that extended the mailing deadline for absentee ballots in that state.

Elections Chief: More Polls, Training, Tech Support Needed To Avoid November Meltdown

While some voters said they appreciated the option to vote by mail in Georgia’s primary, many were unhappy that their ballots were not counted.

“This is very disappointing,” said Gwinnett voter Kenneth Scott. “[The election] is not going to be fair unless all of the votes get counted.”

Denise Reid, a Cobb voter whose health did not allow her to vote in person, said she was “really, really upset.”

“It took me three days to fill my ballot out,” she said. “Then I got it all filled up, in the envelope, signed it, did the signature. I did everything I was supposed to do.”

Her ballot was rejected on June 12 for coming back too late.

In addition to 727 late ballots, Cobb County also rejected 236 ballots for missing signatures and 95 for invalid signatures.

The bulk of the rejected ballots came in the state’s largest counties in metro Atlanta area. Gwinnett had 1,409 rejected ballots (915 late), DeKalb reported 1,236 rejections (918 late), Cobb reported 1,064 rejected (727 late) and Fulton says it received 951 late ballots plus 79 rejected for other reasons, including missing signatures. 

Some voters contacted said they will not be voting absentee again in November after their ballots were rejected, like Paul Martin, who received a letter from Fulton County on June 23 that his ballot was rejected for a missing signature.

Voters whose ballots have a missing or invalid signature are given three days to go to the elections office in person and correct the problem.  Fulton voter James Humpries decided against it because he said at the point he was notified, the election results were essentially decided.

“This is the first time I’ve ever not voted in person, and I don’t plan on doing it again,” he said.

Humphries said although he heard about problems with the June primary, including balky new machines, lack of poll workers and long lines, he feels in-person voting is the better option.

“Even if we go to voting by mail, I’ll still be going to the polls,” he said.

Copyright 2020 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.
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