The State Elections Board has voted to accept three consolidated cases involving elections irregularities in Forest Park. The City Council had voted at its August 1 meeting “to authorize the entering into a Consent Order with the State Elections Board pertaining to SEB Cases 2017-075, 2019-033, and 2019-042.”

2017-075 involved what former Chief Elections Investigator Frances Watson had said were “numerous” complaints about the November 7, 2017 municipal election. Three complaints were substantiated:

  • An allegation that Councilman Dabouze Antoine had campaigned within 150 feet of the polling place on November 7, 2017
  • An allegation that the City of Forest Park and then-Elections Supervisor Lois Wright had failed to properly redact voters’ dates of birth on 587 absentee ballot applications released in response to an Open Records Request
  • An allegation that Councilwoman Kimberly James had submitted six absentee ballot applications for other people (including two of her adult children) without signing the section that shows she filled out the forms on behalf of the other voters

Only the allegations against Antoine, Wright, and the city were sent to the AG’s office. James received a letter of instruction.

2019-033 involved several complaints about campaigning violations during the November 5, 2019 election that were referred to the AG’s office. Those included:

  • Latresa Akins-Wells for 21-2-4-14(d): Restrictions on campaign activities, “when she was present inside the polling location after she cast her own ballot. She also admitted to escorting voters inside the polling location to cast their ballots.”
  • Lois Wright for 21-2-5-62(a)(1): Fraudulent entry, “when she inserted a date on another person’s absentee ballot application and concealed that date with White-Out”
  • Lois Wright for 21-2-3-84(a)(5): Mailing of ballots, “when Wright failed to require a voter, Brenda Walton, to complete an affidavit after allowing that voter to vote in person while their absentee ballot was already in the mail”
  • Lois Wright and absentee ballot clerk Azelia Jones for an alleged violation of an SEB Rule [read in the meeting as 183-1-12-.02-4(b)], “when she wrote the incorrect voter combination code on the voter certificate, which resulted in the voter receiving the incorrect ballot; and 21-2-384(a)(3) Mailing a ballot, when Wright failed to document absentee ballot information, i.e. ballot number and issue date, on at least 168 absentee ballot applications.”

Case 2019-042 involved an election worker, Edwin Martinez, handing out flyers that favored a sales tax break for fulfillment centers at Gillem Logistics Center, inside the polling place. The same flyer was posted on the wall next to where voters signed in to cast tehir ballots. (Transparency note: The voter who made the complaint was The Clayton Crescent’s editor, Robin Kemp, who at the time worked for the Clayton News-Daily and who was casting her ballot as a voter registered in Forest Park.) The recommendation was that the board refer both Martinez and Wright to the attorney general’s office for alleged violation of 21-2-4-14(a), restriction on campaign activities.

At the time, Wright also sat on all three appointed city development boards and chaired the Development Authority. Today, Wright is still listed as a member of the Development Authority. Her term expires August 30, along with that of vice-chair Alvin Patton.

On the August 22, 2022 agenda were several cases involving Clayton County, including a report from Attorney General Chris Carr’s office on the consolidated consent order for the City of Forest Park. (The agenda erroneously notes it as being in Fulton County.)

Another Clayton County case, 2022-108, is a consent investigation about ballot harvesting. The SEB approved staff recommendations on that case as part of the consent agenda; what those recommendations are were not immediately available. We will update with that information.

Fulton County’s performance review likely won’t be done until after the November 2022 election is certified, according to the attorney general’s general counsel, Ryan Germany, who says the review is required under SB 202, the state’s new election law. That’s because the other two members of the performance review committee are themselves busy with preparing elections in their own counties.

Dr. Janice Johnston suggested that Fulton County use some of its own money “to enlist observers from the outside.” The SEB did not say where those outside observers should come from, why the would need funding, or what their qualifications might be. At present, members of the public can observe elections for free as part of the regular process.

The board also heard from Germany about possible state takeover of election grant funds. Clayton County received a grant from the Schwarzenegger Institute in 2020 to help with the costs to administer elections. After Clayton County made national headlines for being the county that put Joe Biden over the minimum number of electoral votes needed to become President, state officials went after those grants.

Germany said a study found no other states had a model for managing election grants, adding that the closest example was the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) fund distributions. Other states give those out through their secretary of state’s office or state elections board.

Germany said state management of election grants would require “significant resources” and suggested that “some legislative scheme should be put into effect for those private grants. It would take significant resources for the board to administer that.”

Germany said many of the grants are small, around $10,000, and have a greater impact on smaller counties. Some money generally goes to making polling places more accessible and to increase building security.

However, Germany added, he thought the grantmaking in 2020 was “an anomaly” and that he’s not seeing the same level of grantmaking in elections around the country.

Sara Tindall Ghazal said she has extensive experience in grants administration and that any grants oversight entity would “need real knowledge on grants.” She added that grant recipients already have to abide by Georgia law. “I suggest the State Elections Board, as a volunteer part-time board, is not best suited to oversee” those grants, she said, adding that the Secretary of State’s office would be a better potential administrator because they talk with county elections offices every day.

Matt Mashburn said, “We can’t have the Wild West out there and just have money flying around.” He pointed to election grants in Wisconsin, which Mashburn said “were used to bring in private people to come in and take over the government.” He also questioned to whom any administrators would be accountable: “Is there an accountability to donors in Oregon? Did the people in Georgia like what they did?” And in terms of distributing funds on a per capita basis, he said, “Some precincts are 100% Democratic or 100% Republican. We’ve got to dig deeper: is this county allocating more to one party or another?”

Johnston said, “Elections are not charities,” asserting that “grants are addicting” and “encourage unnecessary spending that too quickly evolve from a want to a need to a demand….I’m very much against grants, and I think that counties should live within their means.” She added that, if there are grants, the SEB should control them and the General Assembly should sign off on them.

Edward Lindsey said he thought the grant process should not be part of elections. He also expressed concern about polling places in synagogues and churches being treated as in-kind contributions.

Johnston also said, “We’ve prevented election offices from receiving grants. There seems to be a go-around for counties to receive” election grants that would be redistributed to county elections offices.

Lindsey was charged with putting together a response to the findings.

Several other cases involve multiple counties:

  • 2020-230: about voter registration drives
  • 2020-017: about registration fraud
  • 2022-105: this is a letter case about the 2022 primary election

Watch the meeting live:

Chairman William S. Duffey explained that elections complaints are investigated by the investigations team, not the members of the SEB, but are done on behalf of the SEB.

“I think the working relationship is good. They understand that these investigations are being done for us, even though they work for the Secretary of State,” Duffey said. In “a very small minority of cases,” Duffey said, the SEB asks the investigators to take a deeper look. “In this case, I think there were five or six” that required a deeper look, “and the investigators said, ‘Of course.'”

He added that “We need to know the facts of the investigation before we apply the law to the facts,” and that the SEB and investigators have a strong, collegial relationship.

Troup County Elections Board member Lonnie Hollis testifies before the Georgia State Elections Board, Aug 22, 2022.

After a 15-minute break, the SEB took up violations cases. The first involved two alleged violations in Troup County, including a voter who was allowed to vote a second time after bypassing the ballot scanner. Elections officials voided her first ballot when she allegedly walked to the door with it. Four board members vote to allow the woman to vote again. In another incident, a county elections board member, Lonnie Hollis, allegedly took cell phone photos in the voting area, then told a poll worker, “I can do what I want to because I’m a board member.” Hollis told the SEB that some people had thought the printed ballot was their receipt and that they had not been told to place the printed ballot into the scanner. She added, “I consider myself as a poll official… I did have a cellphone in my hand and I saw the signs in there,” but that she never took any photos. She also denied that she had spoken to two people in the polling place. Hollis said she had been a Fulton County elections worker for years and that she was checking to see whether the rules were being followed. She asked why no one caught the voter before she got to the door and said no one had been stationed at the scanner there and in another precinct. “There was a lack of training and a lack of observation of people” at the polling place, Hollis said.

Ghazal said it was important for voters and poll workers to understand that, if they leave the polling place with a ballot, that ballot is considered spoiled and they will not be given a second chance to vote.

Hollis said that, because the ballot marking devices were new, a lot of voters didn’t understand the process.

Mashburn moved that the allegations about Hollis taking photos be dismissed and that the matter of the two poll workers allowing the voter to bypass the scanner be referred to the attorney general’s office.

Duffey offered an amendment that a hearing be held as soon as possible. The motion passed unanimously.

After a break, the SEB reconvened:

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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