Eleven months after the November 3, 2020 election, a review of transfer forms provided to The Georgia Star News in response to an open records request reveals that the Secretary of State’s office in Georgia is missing chain of custody documents for 6,995 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes in Fulton County during the November 2020 election.
The number of absentee ballots for which the office has no evidence of the origination of the ballots represents nine percent of the 79,460 total that Fulton County has recorded as being deposited into drop boxes during the more than month-long early voting and Election Day period.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, certified the results of the November 3, 2020 election–which gave Georgia’s 16 Electoral College votes to Joe Biden by a margin of 12,670 votes out of 5 million votes cast–on November 20, 2020 without having seen or reviewed the chain of custody documents associated with an estimated 600,000 absentee ballots deposited in 300 drop boxes around the state. Fulton County’s 79,460 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes were about 13 percent of the state total of 600,000.
Just the News reported that the Secretary of State’s office did not receive these chain of custody documents from county election offices throughout the state until January and February of 2021.
Secretary of State Raffensperger has never offered an explanation as to why he certified the state’s election results without having even looked at the chain of custody documents for absentee ballots placed in drop boxes.
The absentee ballots in Fulton County should have been documented on at least 140 separate drop box transfer forms, a process put into place through Emergency Rule 183-1-14-0.8-.14 promulgated by the State Election Board in July 2020.
A recent report by The Star News indicated that in DeKalb County, more than 43,000 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes violated the chain of custody documentation rules established by the State Election Board. Shortly after that report was published, the DeKalb County election administrator, Erica Hamilton, was placed on an indefinite leave of absence. Subsequently, the Secretary of State’s office announced an official investigation into chain of custody documentation in DeKalb County in 2020.
The emergency rule, itself, circumvented the Georgia General Assembly, which is the only entity – and laws being the only mechanism – by which the Georgia Constitution authorizes any and all aspects of the carrying out of voting and elections in the state. Drop boxes were not authorized by the Georgia General Assembly to receive vote by mail absentee ballots at the time of the November 3, 2020 election.
The Star News has been trying for more than nine months to get the chain of custody documents from Fulton County elections officials, starting with an initial open record request in early December 2020.
After repeated attempts, Fulton County failed to provide The Star News with a full set of chain of custody documents for the November 2020 absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes. Eventually, a Fulton County elections official made the stunning admission that a number of chain of custody documents were missing. As of the date of that report, June 14, 2021, Fulton County had failed to provide The Star News with the chain of custody documents associated with 18,901 absentee ballots.
On June 17, Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) News reported that they received all of the chain of custody documents from Fulton County. To this day, those documents, purportedly provided to GPB by Fulton County, have been denied to The Star News.
Another analysis by The Star News revealed that GPB News claimed chain of custody documents originating from Fulton County included chain of custody documentation for 4,800 more drop box absentee ballots than Fulton County provided to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
GPB News reported in June that Fulton County could not produce all of the chain of custody documents.
The county is also missing records for eight individual drop boxes across three days: five from Oct. 15, two from Oct. 17 and one from Oct. 21.
For at least 46 drop box entries totaling just under 1,100 ballots, the county has internal records of the total number of ballots collected but did not provide the associated form.
The baseline for determining the number of absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes for which the secretary of state is missing chain of custody documents is a Fulton County spreadsheet.
Displaying the Fulton County logo and the file name “Absentee Ballot Drop Box – Daily County – November 3 2020,” the spreadsheet tracked all of the absentee ballot and absentee ballot applications collected from drop boxes from September 24 through November 3, 2020, Election Day.
Since the State Election Board and Secretary of State lacked the foresight to implement a tracking mechanism for absentee ballots, like serialization, the spreadsheet, however flawed, is the only mechanism for evaluating the use of drop boxes throughout Fulton County for the November 2020 general election.
The spreadsheet is wrought with errors, such as incorrect quantities of ballots as compared to the chain of custody documents themselves, ballot quantities entered in adjacent days or drop boxes, and quantities of ballots recorded on the chain of custody document but not captured on the spreadsheet.
The majority of the data was entered correctly, however.
This is evidenced in the marked-up spreadsheet picture here.
Under each drop box location across the top are two columns, representing the absentee ballot collections in the left column and the absentee ballot application in the right column by the date listed on the far left.
For the purposes of this review, The Star News only evaluated the number of absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes, and not the applications.
The review also only included the period starting September 30, 2020, because the chain of custody documents from September 29, 2020 and prior were labeled “Special Election,” indicating that they were for the special election for the successor to the late civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis.
(Note: Totals by drop box have been manually adjusted to reflect the original numbers on the Fulton County spreadsheet and not the ballot quantities entered by The Star News, reflecting the absentee ballots for which the secretary of state has the chain of custody documents – but the quantities were not entered by Fulton County on the spreadsheet.)
Each cell that is highlighted in green represents a quantity match between the spreadsheet and the absentee ballot transfer form for that specific date and drop box location.
Cells highlighted in yellow depict the quantities not recorded accurately on the spreadsheet when compared to the chain of custody document. Some of the errors are inexplicable, but many are transposed numbers from other drop boxes, days, or applications.
As a specific example for several of the errors, most of the incorrect entries on October 13 and 14 were related to reversing the quantities between the two days.
Cells with a ballot quantity recorded in red are those for which the secretary of state had a chain of custody document, but the absentee ballot quantity was not recorded on the spreadsheet.
The cells highlighted in orange represent the number of absentee ballots Fulton County says were collected from drop boxes but the secretary of state does not have the corresponding chain of custody document.
Farther down on the spreadsheet and also highlighted in orange, the number of absentee ballots Fulton County recorded as having counted but the secretary of state is missing the chain of custody documentation is totaled.
The number of instances for which the secretary of state is missing the chain of custody document is also totaled just below the total number of ballots. There could be additional chain of custody documents the secretary of state is missing because there could have been more than one collection to achieve the number of absentee ballots recorded on the spreadsheet.
With a minimum of 140 chain of custody documents representing 6,995 absentee ballots collected from drop boxes, the secretary of state is missing documentation for nine percent of the 79,460 absentee ballots Fulton County reported as collected from drop boxes during the November 2020 election.
Raffensperger was concerned enough about election integrity in Fulton County that he engaged a monitor for the November 2020 election from which a detailed report documented numerous irregularities. Both the monitor and Raffensperger continue to maintain that there was no evidence of systemic fraud, although Raffensperger has said he wants Fulton County elections to be taken over by the state.
The Star News evaluation of the chain of custody documentation comparison continues and additional reports on the findings are forthcoming.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Star News Network, where she covers stories for The Georgia Star News and The Tennessee Star.