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What legislators heard from Secretary of State's Office over election integrity concerns
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State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, left, asks a question during a Dec. 3 Georgia Senate committee meeting about election processes. Photo captured from streaming video of committee meeting. - photo by Megan Reed

As Georgia finishes its third count of the Nov. 3 presidential race, legislators met with the Secretary of State’s Office and Fulton County officials Thursday to bring forward feedback from their communities about the voting process and look at possible reforms ahead of the next legislative session.

After a year that saw high absentee ballot turnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the implementation of new voting machines, legislators said they wanted their constituents to have faith in the process. The Senate Government Oversight Committee met Thursday to hear from election officials. 

“Based on what I’m hearing from the people I represent, we have totally lost confidence in our system, our election system this year,” State Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said. “... I think we all have a duty as elected officials that represent them. I’m their voice. I’m here today to represent them as citizens. I have a duty to let you know that this issue isn’t going to go away unless we make some changes.”

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Ryan Germany, general counsel for the Secretary of State’s Office, said elections officials told the state they were “being asked to really run three systems at one time” as they processed absentee ballots, held early voting and prepared for Election Day. 

Although Georgia has allowed all voters to use absentee ballots since 2005, interest in voting by mail spiked this year, Germany said. While many voters chose to use absentee ballots due to concerns about COVID-19, Germany said some voter groups also encouraged absentee or early voting. Voters asking to cancel absentee ballots as they decided to vote in-person created an extra workload for elections officials, he said.

Germany also addressed concerns about signature verification of absentee ballots.

“Secretary (of State Brad) Raffensperger has already said he does not believe signature match is the best way to verify absentee ballot applications or ballots, and we are looking at what other states do to see if there’s a better way to do that utilizing technology,” he said. 

The state’s absentee ballot application portal, which asks for a date of birth and driver’s license or state ID number, could be used as a model, Germany said. 

Absentee ballots can either be mailed to the voter’s address on file or a temporary out-of-county address, Germany said. Absentee ballots cannot be mailed to a different address within the same county. When the voter returns their ballot, they sign the back of the envelope. If the envelope is not signed or the signature is not matched, then the voter is notified and has the opportunity to “cure” their ballot by presenting a photo ID.

“What we have seen with previous investigations is that when the signature didn’t match, it was generally the voter, and for some reason, their signature had changed over the years,” Germany said. “It might have been a case where they got married and they had a new name and the signature was different.”

Once the signature is matched, the envelope is separated from the ballot, although the envelope is kept for two years, Germany said. The ballot, which does not have the voter’s name, is then kept for scanning and counting.

“We have a constitutional right for a secret ballot,” Germany said.

Voters can track their absentee ballot status through the Secretary of State’s Office My Voter Page site. 

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General counsel for the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office Ryan Germany speaks Thursday, Nov. 3, 2020. The Senate Government Oversight Committee met to hear from election officials. Photo captured from streaming video of committee meeting. - photo by Megan Reed

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, asked about absentee ballot dropboxes and video surveillance to monitor those. Hall has two dropboxes, one at the Hall County Government Center and one at Spout Springs Library.

The state requires video surveillance of dropboxes to be kept for 30 days after certification or the conclusion of an election contest, Germany said. Counties have to turn the video over to Secretary of State investigators upon request, and the public can file an open records request to review it as well, he said.

“Any time we have requested it from a county, we have received it,” Germany said. 

Germany said the state has not seen any evidence of counties keeping dropboxes open past the deadline, which is 7 p.m. on Election Day as polls close. 

Germany said the state has about 300 instances of alleged double voting, or voting both absentee and on Election Day. There are about 70 instances of potential felon voting, he said.

“We have not seen anything that would suggest widespread fraud or widespread problems with the voting system,” Germany said, adding that there is also no evidence that machines switched votes. 

Germany said that if there is an allegation that a county has done something incorrectly, the investigation goes before the state election board. If the board agrees that there has been a violation, the case is referred to the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, he said. That usually results in a fine to the county election board or a consent order where practices are changed to fix the issue.

“There’s not a mechanism basically for state intervention to say, you know what, you guys keep on failing, so something more needs to change rather than just dealing with specific, kind of case-by-case interventions,” Germany said.

One of the state’s many investigations involves “custody of ballots” in Hall. State and county officials have declined to provide details about the investigation, and documents about ongoing investigations are exempt from open records requests.

Tom Smiley, chairman of the county’s elections board, has said he has “100% confidence in our election staff.” He declined to comment further, citing the open investigation, but said “any accusation of fraud is in my opinion totally unfounded.”

The state has set up a voter fraud hotline at 877-725-9797 for people to report activity they have witnessed. People can also use a form on the Secretary of State’s Office website. 

A video of the meeting is available on the Georgia Senate website. The Senate Committee on Judiciary, which does not include any of Hall’s legislators, has formed a subcommittee on elections processes that also met Thursday. 

After the initial hearing, Miller said the Senate would pursue legislation to make changes to the election system next year.

"We will be addressing election reform and just tightening things up," he said.

At the second hearing before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Trump attorneys — including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — brought several witnesses who cast doubt on the integrity of the election in Georgia.

Among other things, they said the state's new voting system was designed to switch votes — a claim disputed by the company that produced the system and by Georgia officials. They also showed video of Fulton County vote-counting they say showed suitcases of ballots being counted in secret after Republican poll monitors were sent home.

The county and the secretary of state have disputed that account. The county says the poll monitors left amid a misunderstanding among staff about how long they were supposed to work. And the secretary of state says a state monitor was present during the counting.

The committee heard testimony from several poll watchers and election workers who told of sloppy and unsecure ballot handling, mistakes in counting votes and scores of suspicious "pristine" ballots that appeared to have been identical. Most of the things they described were said to occur in Fulton County.

"We take the responsibility of protecting the vote seriously and have invested every possible resource into ensuring a free, fair and transparent election in compliance with all applicable laws," the county said in a statement on the testimony.

"To date we are aware of no credible reports of voter fraud or wrongdoing in Fulton County," the statement said. "Any credible report of such activity will be investigated and addressed as provided by Georgia law."

Trump attorney Ray Smith said the campaign planned to file a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court late Thursday. He said the lawsuit would show that tens of thousands of underage voters, felons, people who had moved away, dead people and other ineligible voters had cast ballots.

"This hearing is just the tip of the iceberg," Smith said.

Several lawsuits contesting the election are already pending in federal and Fulton County courts. So far, the president's efforts to overturn election results in numerous states have failed, despite more than two dozen lawsuits.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.