by Robin Kemp

The Georgia State Elections Board has referred a case involving voters casting ballots outside their districts in the City of Riverdale’s 2019 municipal election to Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr’s office.

According to SEB Acting Chair Rebecca N. Sullivan (the Georgia Assembly removed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as SEB chair as part of SB 202 after he turned down former President Donald Trump’s direction to “find 11,780 votes” to throw him the election) the early voting period for Riverdale’s November 5, 2019 municipal elections, the Clayton County Board of Elections and Registration “discovered several errors that had been made regarding placement of voters in the Riverdale City Council’s wards.”

Riverdale’s ward map as of July 2017

Investigators found that, on October 31, 2019, the Clayton County Elections and Registration Office made these changes to ward boundaries in Riverdale:

  • A portion of Denham Street ([?]36 through 614 Denham Street) was updated to all Ward 2 from Ward 4 (45 voters affected)
  • 614 Denham Street remained in Ward 4 (no voters affected)
  • 632 Camp Street was updated to Ward 4 from Ward 2 (no voters affected)
  • 1183 King Road was updated from Ward 1 to outside the city limits (2 voters affected)

According to the investigators’ findings, “Rodney Lawrence asserts that he lost the Ward 2 election by nine votes and he states that he actually might have won the election if he had been provided the opportunity to address the 45 voters who were moved into Ward 2 on October 31, 2019. There were only three voters out of the 47 that voted in the election and only one that voted an incorrect ballot. The remaining voters were corrected in the system.”

County Attorney Charles Reed told the elections board that the Board of Elections “had a contractual obligation to conduct the City of Riverdale’s elections” in 2017, including redistricting changes.Dozier, City Clerk Sylvia Vaughan, and “a GIS coordinator for the city” worked together, with Dozier providing “a step-by-step update of the districting maps during that process,” Reed said, “and city officials were fully involved in that process.”

Reed told the SEB that, “Prior to finalizing those redistricting changes and generating the precinct cards in E-Net, Ms. Vaughan approved all those changes that were made. And so, even though the Board of Elections conducted the 2017 elections, even though it was a contractual obligation, the Board of Elections always encourages extensive input by the municipalities in the redistricting process, basically as a best practice to make sure that the municipal experts are in the know, because they are the ones who know geography of the city. And I believe that those 2017 e-mail exchanges were provided to the investigators prior to the investigation into this case.”

In July 2019, he added, “the Board of Elections sent a municipal street audit to each municipality to give them the opportunity to view and make any recommendations prior to the start of early voting, to ensure that all the streets and districts were correct. And unlike in 2017, where the Board of Elections had a contractual obligation to run the city’s elections, in 2019, Ms. Vaughan was conducting the election for the City of Riverdale. In July 24, 2019, Ms. Vaughan signed off on a form, a verification form, indicating that the street list and districts in Riverdale were correct prior to the 2019 November general election. In October 2019, during early voting, Ms. Vaughan contacted Ms. Dozier and informed her that a voter had stated that they had voted in the wrong district, or that they were assigned to the wrong district, and upon research, it was identified that the voter was correct.”

To make sure no other voters had that problem, “and despite the assurances from the signed verification form in July that all of the districts were correct,” Reed continued, “Ms. Dozier on her own conducted a full voluntary street audit of Riverdale streets. And at that time, she saw that there were a few other segments that needed correction, and that information was passed on to Ms. Vaughan, along with a list of instructions on how to code the ballot for any voter impact.”

Reed said the information in part of the state investigators’ finding “was taken verbatim from the e-mail that was sent from Ms. Dozier to Ms. Vaughan, alerting Ms. Vaughan of the errors that Ms. Dozier found in the street audit, and those actions that were taken to correct those errors.” Dozier also gave Vaughan a list of affected voters, “and the Board of Elections provided notifications immediately to each voter. Ms. Vaughan was also reminded to offer a provisional ballot to voters when necessary, and Ms. Dozier made herself and elections staff available to assist Ms. Vaughan during this process. Ms. Dozier was obviously sincerely apologetic to the voter that was impacted by the City of Riverdale and the Board of Elections and Registration.”

Since then, Reed said, “the Board of Elections and Ms. Dozier continue to send municipal audit reports to the municipalities, as well as meet with respective municipalities at least once a year in an annual municipal roundtable, where they discuss the upcoming elections, certification requirements, along with duties and responsibilities of the county, as it relates to the municipalities. And it’s the desire of both Ms. Dozier and the Board of Elections to continue to work closely with the City of Riverdale and the other municipalities of Clayton County as, at the end of the day, both the cities and county want voters to be able to cast votes for the candidates of their choice properly.

“Since this situation in 2019, the Board of Elections has added more audit checks and continues to revise and update processes and procedures,” Reed continued. “Furthermore, the Board of Elections recently hosted a redistricting training in Clayton County, in conjunction with the Secretary of State’s Elections Division office, to assist in our upcoming redistricting preparedness. Without this diminishing the impact of the incident on the affected voter, at this time, the Board of Elections and Ms. Dozier ask that this board dismiss the case against them, as the board and Ms. Dozier reasonably relied on the verification by the municipal representatives for the City of Riverdale that all information related to the streets and voter districts was correct for the City of Riverdale’s November 2019 general election. And the alternative, if the board is not willing to dismiss, we are asking for a letter of instruction.”

Vaughan was not cited as a respondent in the case.

SEB member Matthew Mashburn asked, “Were you involved in the civil action? Was that a contest? Was that an election contest?”

Reed replied, “No, we were not involved. If there was any civil litigation related to this election, no, we were not involved in that.”

“Okay, I see in the report that it was dismissed with prejudice,” Mashburn said, “by the complainant. I was wondering if you knew what the rationale behind that was, even if you weren’t involved.”

“No, I’m not aware of the challenge that Mr. Lawrence—if there was a challenge that was made, I’m not aware of that,” Reed said. “We were not involved in their election at all, in 2019, only to the extent that we provided them with a street audit and made sure that what they told us was correct.”

Dozier added, “No, we were not involved in any type of litigation.”

SEB member Sara Tindall Ghazal said, “I wanted to thank Ms. Dozier for the ameliorative actions that she has taken, because we all know that, with redistricting coming up, making sure that voters are properly districted and assigned is really paramount to what’s coming up, and the fact that she’s put so much attention to this moving forward, I just wanted to acknowledge and appreciate. Thank you.”

SEB member Anh Le said, “I guess the ultimate question I have is, in your review, is it your conclusion that the election was not impacted, the results were not impacted, in terms of Mr. Lawrence—the outcome of the election is not impacted by this error, is that right? Can you confirm that for me?”

“From what we can determine from what’s available to us,” Reed said, “I believe there’s only one vote that was affected relating to Mr. Lawrence’s election. I don’t believe there were any—there were not, you know, ten people, or he said he lost by nine votes, I believe the actual official results may have been eight, from what we can determine, but there was not enough people who were affected that would have affected his election. The only thing that we can determine is that Tony Thomas and the only way that we knew that this person was even affected was from what the investigator provided to us in this report. When the person who came to us, this was a totally different person, when they came to us, were referred to us from Riverdale, that correction was made, and that ballot was able to be counted. And I believe anybody else that was affected, they were able to cast their ballots provisionally, and all their votes were counted.”

Le made a motion to refer the case to Carr’s office: “There are two issues here. One is voters didn’t get to vote and I just want to make sure we have a closer look at, I guess, the outcome of the election to ensure that Mr. Lawrence’s candidacy was not impacted negatively by this error.” 

Mashburn seconded the motion, adding, “I appreciate ameliorative efforts, and whenever there’s a problem, it’s great when people try to do whatever they can to correct it, make sure it doesn’t happen again, but when people don’t get to vote, then you’ve failed in the fundamental job of what you’re doing, so I agree with Anh on that. But I do want to echo Sara’s comment that I appreciate them taking efforts to correct it and work on it. I’m sure that the attorney general’s office would be very well receptive to that, as well, and I know they’ll appreciate that, as well, so that’s my rationale.”

The board voted unanimously to refer the case, SEB 2019-044, to Carr’s office.

In official results for Riverdale’s November 5, 2019 municipal election, Ward 2 Councilman Frank Cobbs, Jr. got 90 votes (52%) to Rodney Lawrence’s 82 votes (48%). On November 8, 2019, Lawrence contested the election results in Clayton County Superior Court, naming Board of Elections and Registration Director Shauna Dozier and Riverdale City Clerk Sylvia Vaughan as defendants. Judge Aaron Mason dismissed the case with prejudice based on a petition by Lawrence on July 16, 2020. On July 22, 2020, a Rule Nisi was filed, and the case was placed on the non-trial calendar for August 10, 2020. The Clayton Crescent has asked Lawrence for comment and will update with any response.

Lawrence was appointed Riverdale planning commissioner on July 13, 2020. Cobbs voted in favor of the appointment.

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