November 12, 2018

Athens-Clarke County Will Recount a Third of Its Votes


Photo Credit: Blake Aued

From left, Board of Elections members Jesse Evans, Michele Simpson and Charles Knapper and Director of Elections and Voter Registration Charlotte Sosebee.

In any other year, it would have been a mere formality. But an Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections meeting on Monday to certify the county's vote ended with a vote to recount eight precincts on an extremely tight deadline before sending the results on to the state.

Newly appointed board member Jesse Evans submitted petitions to conduct a "recanvassing" in eight out of 24 precincts: Howard B. Stroud, Clarke Central, Lay Park, the multimodal center, Whitehead Road (which includes both 5A and 5B), Chase Street and Cedar Shoals.

Under state law, three voters in a precinct can submit a notarized request to trigger a "recanvassing"—essentially a recount, followed by testing of voting machines—if they believe there is a discrepancy. Commissioners Melissa Link and Mariah Parker and Commissioner-elect Tim Denson worked with voters in their districts to submit the petitions, according to Link.

That triggered a three-hour discussion among board members and attorneys—as well as, at times, some of the 20 or so activists who attended the meeting and interjected or were given permission to speak—about whether such a recanvassing could even be accomplished.

The law requires a quorum of the Board of Elections and the poll manager for each precinct to be present, as well as giving notice to all of the candidates on the ballot and political parties so they can attend or send a representative. And the recanvassing has to be accomplished by mid-afternoon Tuesday, or ACC will be in violation of another state law requiring counties to certify their vote totals by 5 p.m.

"This is all news to me," ACC Attorney Bill Berryman said when he learned about the petitions. He asked for and received an hour-long recess to research this issue.

During the recess, Evans announced his intention to file a lawsuit if the board did not conduct the recanvassing.

"If they decided to break the statute, everybody here can sue them," Ryan Heron, a local lawyer advising Evans, said before leaving the meeting.

When the board reconvened, Berryman said the board had to decide whether to conduct the recanvassing or run the risk of missing the deadline for officially reporting its final results to the state.

"Basically, what I am describing here is a very, very tight timeframe," Berryman said. "This came at a very, very late date, and there's been very little time to assess it… I think it is up to the board to decide if it's reasonably possible to conduct the recanvassing."

"There is no choice in the matter," Evans responded. "This [the petitions] triggers the recanvassing."

Berryman disagreed, saying the board would likely violate the law either way. Evans repeated that a lawsuit would be filed if the recanvassing isn't done.

"I've been doing this job for 15 years," Berryman said. "That doesn't bother me a bit. Go on. Have at it."

Board member Michele Simpson wondered what recanvassing would accomplish. Evans said that another county did one, and its numbers changed. He didn't say which county or by how much. He said he didn't know whether the votes that changed were from machines or paper ballots.

Since Georgia switched to electronic voting machines in the wake of Florida's 2000 paper-ballot debacle, recounts have yielded little or no change in the results, as the computer simply spits out the same results it did previously. The optical scanners used to count paper mail-in ballots occasionally are prone to error, as seen in Athens last week, when 333 absentees had to be duplicated and rescanned.

Bill Overend, a lawyer and former ACC Democratic Party official who's working for the Democratic Party of Georgia's voter protection team, raised the question of whether the secretary of state could refuse to count any of Clarke County's 43,000 ballots—70 percent of which went to Stacey Abrams in the governor's race. 

"I can't give the board any comfort that the votes of the voters of this county will be counted in the statewide tally," Berryman said.

"I don't want to potentially disenfranchise all of the votes of Clarke County based on this," said board chairman Charles Knapper.

Evans then asked for a half hour to consult with "somebody who knows more about this than possibly anybody in this room," but would not say whom.

When he returned, he said his confidante had spoken to Chris Harvey, the elections director in the secretary of state's office, who told the confidante that ACC's votes would still be counted if it missed the certification deadline.

But there could be other consequences, Sosebee said. Missing the deadline would trigger a hearing before the State Elections Board. But so would not doing the recanvassing.

Heron reappeared and reiterated something Evans had said earlier: that the petitions trigger an automatic recanvassing, with no vote required. Berryman's position was that the board faced a choice of violating one law or another because they "butt heads."

"Do your damn jobs," Heron told the board as he left the room again.

Attendees began asking the board questions, mostly focused on whether their votes counted. "Everybody don't trust the process," said Linda Lloyd, director of the Athens Economic Justice Coalition. "They don't trust the numbers. They don't trust the count."

Sosebee said she knows that all the votes were counted because poll workers keep a record of who voted, then compare that record to the number of votes cast on the machines. Those numbers deviated by only one or two, she said.

"There are things in place to let us know if we're out of balance," she said.

Asked how a machine could register a vote counter to what the voter intended, Sosebee said the machines are like smart phones, and that people's fingers can slip or another part of their hand could accidentally touch the screen. Voters have an opportunity to review their votes before casting their ballot.

Evans' motion to conduct the recanvassing at first died for a lack of a second, but after expressing concern about the tight timeline, going against the board's attorney's advice and further doubt that a thrown-together plan for recanvassing could cast on the results, Simpson eventually agreed to it, provided that the results are certified before the deadline.

"You're trying to do something on the fly," Berryman said. "Are you making that process more vulnerable than it was before?"

Evans dismissed those concerns. "This is about us not trampling on the civil rights of the voters in this community," he said.

Election officials will only have about three hours to conduct the recanvassing, which "takes some time," according to Sosebee. 

Two board members, Walter Wilson and Alison McCullick, were absent from Monday's meeting. Wilson is out of the state and won't be back by tomorrow, and McCullick recently had a death in the family. In addition, Simpson is scheduled for a medical procedure in Atlanta Tuesday. McCullick told Simpson that she could attend from 10:45 a.m.–2 p.m., so that's the window for conducting the recanvassing while the board has a quorum.

Wilson was appointed by the local Republican Party and Simpson by local Democrats. Evans, McCullick and Knapper are nonpartisan appointees of the ACC Mayor and Commission, which is officially also nonpartisan but controlled by Democrats.

After approving eligible provisional ballots—the official business of the evening—Sosebee said she would start contacting poll workers, candidates and party representatives to show up for the recanvassing.

But she won't rush to get it done if it's not done right, she said, noting she and other election officials counted absentee ballots through the night without even a break for showers.

"If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right," she said. "No rushing. That's just the way I am."

After 2 p.m., Sosebee will drive the certified election results to Atlanta herself to meet the deadline, having missed a 9 a.m. deadline to have the Georgia State Patrol deliver them.

In order to have a chance to do the recanvassing in time, she said her office would have no contact with the public or the media by phone or email while it's underway.

As for the provisional ballots that were the original purpose of the meeting, issues were cleared up with 43 by the 7 p.m. Friday deadline and another 10 on Monday, with five still pending, leaving 161 that won't be counted. Whether the 15 that were resolved Monday or pending will count depends on the outcome of a Democratic Party of Georgia lawsuit seeking to extend the deadline past the 72 hours required by state law.