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Hall Elections Board blames voting discrepancy on printed tape
Candidates concerned ballots were not counted properly in primary at South Hall site
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The Hall County Board of Elections blames a discrepancy in posted vote totals from the May 22 primary at a South Hall election precinct on a printing error and not voting irregularities.

After two local candidates raised concerns about the accuracy of printed results posted at a South Hall precinct the night of the primary, the Board launched an internal investigation. Elections staff determined that while an error occurred with the printing of the tapes, election data had been gathered properly.

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Alana Watkins talks during a Democratic primary debate in Flowery Branch in April. - photo by Nick Bowman
Alana Watkins, a Democrat running for the District 30 State House of Representatives seat, said she went to her Hopewell Baptist Church polling place on Poplar Springs Road in Gainesville on primary night to see the results that are printed from the machines and posted at each voting site after the polls close.

Watkins said when she looked at the tape from one of the machines, she did not see her own name nor names of candidates in several other races.

“It’s concerning because it implies that those particular races were not on the ballot,” Watkins said.

According to a county news release, three copies of each tape are printed. State law requires one copy to be posted on the door of the polling place; those tapes are usually discarded within 24 hours. One copy goes to the Clerk of Court, and the Elections Board receives the third copy.

Hall County Board of Elections full response

Lori Wurtz, county elections director, said in a news release issued Friday, July 13, the error Watkins saw was a result of a problem printing the tape, not the actual voting results.

“It appears that most likely the printing function was disengaged on the machine during the production of the tape reports, and then re-engaged. When this happens, the machine continues the counting process even if printing is suspended,” Wurtz said.

“When printing resumes, the tape reflects the data from where the counting is at that moment rather than where the printing stopped. The outcome of the printing stop and restart is what we are seeing on the tapes in question.”

Elections Board Chairman Tom Smiley said in the news release that he would ask the board to request an independent investigation from the Secretary of State’s office.

Kim Copeland, chairman of the Hall County Democratic Party, also saw the tape at Hopewell Baptist Church the night of the primary. He said Watkins called him and told him her name was missing from one of the tapes there. Copeland left an election night event to go see the tape for himself.

When Copeland looked at the tape shortly after midnight, he said he saw that the tape skipped several races. Copeland served on the Board of Elections for 11 years before leaving in November, and he said he had never seen errors on a results tape before.

“There was no indication ... that the tape had been cut or crumpled,” he said.

Watkins did not attend Tuesday’s Board of Elections meeting where the topic was discussed. Michael Parker, a Democratic candidate for the District 1 seat on the Hall County Board of Commissioners, did attend the meeting. Though he ran unopposed in the May primary, he was worried votes may not have been accurately counted or recorded.

“There are many of these machines in Hall County, and if there’s an issue with one, there may be an issue with others,” Parker said Wednesday.

The candidates have had another advocate: Marilyn Marks, the executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, a nonpartisan group that advocates for election transparency. Marks said she has been advocating for fair elections for nine years and has never seen such a printing error, though she has heard of printer jams with voting machines.

Marks filed open records requests June 28 and 30 asking for copies of the tapes from the precinct, recap sheets from the polling site and vote records and audit logs from the machines. 

Marks told The Times she has not received any of the documents she requested.

In a July 13 email sent to the elections board, Marks emphasized the importance of election transparency.

“While the Georgia code is clear that all public bodies must operate with transparency, the standards for operating in the sunshine are elevated for election officials because of the essential nature of transparency and public oversight in public elections,” she said. “It is essential that voters, the press, candidates and campaigns have full access to observe all steps in the conduct of elections.”

In a July 10 letter to Marks, Hall County attorney Bill Blalock cited Marks’ involvement in another case as his reason for recommending denial of her records requests.

The Coalition for Good Governance is involved in a lawsuit against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office arguing that touch-screen voting should be illegal. Marks told The Times touch-screen voting is more easily hackable and less easily verified than other forms of voting.

“We are trying to force Georgia to get rid of it,” she said.

Marks said the case against the state has nothing to do with Hall County, and feels her organization’s involvement should not be used as rationale for denying her records request. 

The Elections Board met Friday afternoon, and after calling the meeting to order, the board left for an executive session without allowing public comment. The board returned from the executive session and adjourned without public comment.

According to the meeting agenda, members went into executive session to discuss potential litigation.

Board member Craig Lutz said Friday evening after the meeting that the purpose of the meeting had been for an executive session, and thus public comment was not on the agenda. Friday was a special called meeting and public comment is taken at the board’s regularly scheduled meetings, he said.

In an email sent Friday evening, Smiley said legal counsel advises when an executive session is warranted. He said he signs an affidavit following executive sessions stipulating that the session was warranted. The board allows and encourages public comment at regular meetings, he said.

Marks, who ran for mayor of Aspen, Colorado, in 2009 and now lives in North Carolina, told The Times she does not intend to pursue legal action against the county.

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