by Robin Kemp
The State Election Board has voted to refer the Clayton County Elections and Registration Office and Director Shauna Dozier to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office after the office was unable to produce absentee ballot drop box transfer sheets for all of the county’s drop boxes in the November 3, 2020 election.
In addition, according to County Attorney Chuck Reed, who represented the elections office and Dozier before the board, because the department was short-handed, ballots in those boxes were not picked up until the following day, November 4, 2020.
All of Clayton County’s absentee ballot drop boxes were under 24-hour video surveillance at the time. Findings by state investigators presented during Tuesday’s meeting did not indicate any missing absentee ballots.
In June, a similar complaint about Fulton County made national headlines and fueled false claims from supporters of former President Donald Trump about missing ballots.
According to findings presented to the State Elections Board on Tuesday, the Investigations Division opened an investigation on November 6, 2020 “regarding the securing of Clayton County absentee ballot drop boxes by 7 p.m. on November 3, 2020.”
The investigators reviewed the security video from each drop box and found elections staff had secured each box “at approximately 7 p.m. on November 3, 2020. However, Elections Director Shauna Dozier was unable to produce copies of the dropbox transfer forms.”
The revelations came five months after The Clayton Crescent had filed an Open Records Request for those forms.
On July 12, 2021, The Clayton Crescent filed an Open Records Request with the Clayton County Board of Elections and Registration seeking those ballot transfer forms for “all seven drop boxes.” A follow-up requests for response was filed in the county’s Open Records portal on July 28.
The original request was for ballot transfer forms from “all seven” ballot drop boxes in the November 3, 2020 election. It’s not clear whether additional pages would have been required for each dropbox.
According to the Georgia Poll Worker Manual (2021 edition), the Drop Box Ballot Transfer Form (labeled “DropBox2021”) “is used to account for absentee ballots removed from a drop box. Each field on the form must be completed for transport. The collection team transporting the ballots must sign and date the form. The Registrar or Absentee Ballot Clerk must sign and date the form to confirm they received the ballots.” Here is what the 2021 form looks like (we’re working on getting a copy of the form used in 2020):
During the August 10, 2021 Board of Elections and Registration meeting, Dozier said her office had been slammed with Open Records Requests that were “dictating the day to day operations causing a shifting in the normal duties.” She added that the number of requests were nearly double what they had answered in 2018, and that “the open records requests received are not what the office has received in the past and are extremely lengthy in the detail and the amount of the requests.”
In response, Elections and Registration Board member Pat Pullar suggested keeping “a running tally with the name of the organization and their request…so that the Board can make remarks publicly to inform people of what the public is asking for and what the office is faced with.” The Clayton Crescent has asked the board how many requests the Elections and Registration office has gotten since the November 3 election, from whom, and how many of those came from outside Clayton County. We’ll update with any response.
At the same time, the office was scrambling to meet new deadlines under SB 202 while preparing for the District 1 Board of Commissioners special election, as well as municipal elections in Morrow, Jonesboro, and Forest Park.
On August 13, an employee at Elections and Registration, Fayshawne Walker, replied to The Clayton Crescent via e-mail: “We believe we have documents responsive to this portion of your request regarding ballot transfer forms. However, the documents appear to be extensive and will require more time than usual for research. The Department will provide an estimate related to the time the request will take and the amount within 2 weeks as there are numerous requests to be completed prior to yours.” Asked whether those “numerous requests” were coming from inside or outside of the state, Walker did not reply.
Early voting began October 12, 2020. However, not all those boxes were available to voters on October 12 and 13. It’s not clear how often Elections and Registration employees emptied each box and on what days.
On September 1, The Clayton Crescent sent a follow-up e-mail to Walker and filed another request for response in the county’s online Open Records portal. Walker responded by e-mail on September 9 with a letter from the Clayton County Community Development Department, quoting an estimated $261.12 for an estimated 123 pages of responsive records.
The Clayton Crescent asked whether the forms had been filed with Superior Court, which, according to the Georgia Archive’s state retention schedule, is responsible for storing all election documents for two years “after adjournment of the grand jury where documents were presented to and approved by the grand jury,” and “if there is a court case for any race documented by these records, retain until final settlement.” Election tally summary files and election tally sheets are kept for six years under the archive’s records disposition schedule.
On November 30, the Clayton Crescent sent another e-mail requesting a response. None was received. Five months after it was originally filed, the county’s online portal shows the status of The Clayton County’s request as “Waiting for Payment.”
On Tuesday, December 14, Reed told the State Elections Board, “I think there may be somewhat of a slight, I guess, misunderstanding, but some of this is correct of what the investigators revealed. There were dropboxes that were secured by elections staff at 7 p.m. What happened that particular day is we had several techs that were out, half of the staff was out for health reasons, too, because they quit shortly before November 3, I think the Thursday or Friday before, we had several of the techs going to help to do tabulation and help close precincts. So there was no pickup of the drop boxes on November 3. However, on November 4, staff went out to each of the locations, each of the eight locations to pick up the ballots, and we have video surveillance showing when that occurred and the approximate times of that. So I’m not sure If this report is based on the inability to show that the drop boxes were picked up on November 3, or the ability to show that there are forms on November 4. That said, we have documents for November 4. However, we were trying to see if we could get all of those documents. It seems that there are a couple, or a few, we can’t put our hands on, so in this sense, we would ask, if there is a recommendation to bind this over to the attorney general, that at least we would have the opportunity to provide those documents to the attorney general and perhaps have this matter dismissed.”
The Clayton Crescent and WABE’s Stephen Fowler reported on Nov. 4, 2020 that at least 7,462 absentee ballots had yet to be tallied in Clayton County.
Without access to the ballot transfer forms, The Clayton Crescent cannot report how many voters’ absentee ballot forms sat in the ballot boxes overnight or at what time(s) they were picked up and delivered to The Bunker for tallying.
Because The Clayton Crescent was unaware until the SEB meeting on Tuesday that ballots sat in the boxes until November 4, 2020, we would not have known to file a request for ballot transfer paperwork dated after Election Day.
SEB member Matthew Mashburn asked, “They found the form now? There’s not a form that’s missing any longer?”
Reed replied, “We have forms for, there are eight locations, we have forms right now that we can put our hands on for three of those. It appears that there are five. We had a second election going on at the same time to fill the unexpired term for John Lewis, so we’re checking to see whether the dropbox forms were located in that, so that’s why we’re saying we don’t necessarily believe that there were no forms. It’s just that we can’t put our hands on them right now.”
Mashburn then made a motion to refer the case to Carr’s office, “with the instruction that if y’all find the form, I will [look] favorably at a consent order that dismisses it when you come back.”
The board voted unanimously to refer the case to Carr’s office for violation of O.C.G.A. 21-2-73 (2018), Preservation of Primary and Election Records, which states, “All primary and election documents on file in the office of the election superintendent of each county, municipal governing authority, superintendent, registrar, committee of a political party or body, or other officer shall be preserved therein for a period of at least 24 months and then the same may be destroyed unless otherwise provided by law.”
The ballot drop box and the partisan divide
The absentee ballot drop boxes, instituted by the SEB as a COVID-19 safety measure, proved popular among seniors, disabled voters, people whose work schedules conflicted with poll hours, people who were leery of casting votes on the state’s new electronic voting system, and people who wanted to limit contact with others during the pandemic. Concerns about possible tampering were allayed by 24-hour video surveillance at each location.
Georgia Democrats hailed the drop boxes, which they said increased voter participation by making it easier for voters to cast ballots. In Clayton County, 31,796 people voted absentee by mail. President Joseph Biden won 85.2% of absentee by mail votes, compared to Trump’s 13.7% and Libertarian Jo Jorgenson’s 0.009%. Democrat Stacey Abrams, who lost the 2018 governor’s race to Brian Kemp by 1.4% and who is running against Kemp again in 2022, cast her vote early in last year’s Presidential race and used Twitter to encourage other Georgia voters to use the dropboxes.
Many voters requested absentee by mail ballots, returning them in the dropboxes to avoid U.S. Post Office delays. Trump-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy ordered mail processing machines taken down leading up to the election, which slowed mail service. An October 19, 2020 report by the USPS’s Office of the Inspector General found that “the pace of removals was accelerated beginning in June 2020,” with 437 letter and flat processing machines– 325 of which were Delivery Barcode Sorters–taken down between June and August. In addition, USPS took down mailboxes at numbers that “signficantly exceeded the average annual removals in two of the seven geographic areas of the country in July 2020.” Those areas were the Southern, which saw 30% of its maiboxes removed between June 15 and August 31, and the Western, which lost 44% of its mailboxes leading into the 2020 election.
DeJoy “suspended the further removal of [mail]boxes on August 18, 2020 [days before his Congressional testimony on the delays affecting the election], until after the election” and, on September 18, 2020, “Headquarters approved all requests to reconnect machines and provided regional vice presidents the authority to reconnect machines and return them to service when doing so is necessary to add processing capability or fulfill service performance commitments with regard to election mail.” (You can read the USPS Inspector General’s separate report on the Post Office’s readiness to process election mail here.)
Georgia Republicans who backed former President Donald Trump rallied against the drop boxes and placed restrictions on their use in Senate Bill 202, which passed in March. Since then, absentee ballot boxes have been placed inside polling locations and are only available during hours when the polls are open, essentially defeating the purpose of having 24-hour dropbox availability. The bill, which was passed in March and signed into law, also limits the number of dropboxes to one per 100,000 active registered voters.
With 193,326 registered voters in Clayton County on November 3, 2020, that would have meant one dropbox for the entire county. About 53% of registered voters turned out for that election.
Now, State Sen. Butch Miller, who as president pro tempore is the second-highest ranking Senate Republican at the Gold Dome, is running for lieutenant governor–and he’s calling for an end to the dropboxes. Miller, who last session cosponsored a bill that would have required voters to hand-deliver or mail in absentee ballots, claims absentee ballot dropboxes lead to voter fraud:
The AJC’s Maya Prabhu reported Monday that Miller has filed legislation to ban absentee ballot dropboxes altogether. The bill, SB 325, strikes the entire absentee ballot box provision from SB 202.
Also running for lieutenant governor is Trump acolyte Burt Jones, who says Miller is not loyal enough to Trump. Miller told Fox News’ Tyler O’Neil on Thursday that “drop boxes were a ‘huge factor’ in 2020 election concerns.” that “‘there was a chain-of-custody issue where drop boxes would go missing for days at a time,'” and that there had been “‘allegations of ballot stuffing’ in those boxes.” Jones did not offer any evidence to back those allegations. No drop boxes went missing in Fulton County and none have been reported missing in Clayton County.
However, in the weeks before the election, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger reopened a second round of grants before September for county officials to add more dropboxes. When he announced the grants, Raffensperger said, “Georgia has successfully maintained several ways for voters to access the ballot throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Our first round of grants resulted in the installation of 144 absentee boxes, providing a safe and secure way for Georgians to vote by absentee ballot. I encourage every county to take advantage of the grant program and install a drop box ahead of the November elections.”
SB 202 reads in part, “Opportunities for delivering absentee ballots to a drop box were first created by the State Election Board as a pandemic response. The drop boxes created by rule no longer existed in Georgia law when the emergency rules that created them expired. The General Assembly considered a variety of options and constructed a system that allows the use of drop boxes, while also ensuring the security of the system and providing options in emergency situations.”
The bill made an exception for placing ballot boxes outside if the governor declares an emergency. However, that emergency declaration’s existence has to be signed off on by the General Assembly in a special session.
During the January 5, 2021 Senate runoff, Clayton County Police responded to a call from two Board of Elections and Registration workers who, as they were picking up ballots from drop boxes, were being tailed by two men with Georgia GOP field credentials. The election workers said they had felt threatened and pulled into a Clayton County fire station.
Clayton County, which now has over 200,000 registered voters, only had two absentee ballot drop box locations in the October 19 special election runoff: one at the Historic Courthouse in Jonesboro at the Elections and Registration Office, the other at the Carl Rhodenzier Recreation Center in Rex.
By the time the November 8, 2022 election rolls around, pitting Abrams against Kemp and Trump loyalist David Perdue, Clayton County’s absentee ballot drop boxes are almost certain to be gone.