ATLANTA – Election processes in Georgia's most populous county were badly managed, sloppy and chaotic, but there was no evidence of fraud, said an independent monitor who spent many hours over several months observing county election workers.
Detailed notes kept by Carter Jones over the week of the general election in November and obtained by The Associated Press challenge many of the allegations of fraud and misconduct that have circulated since the election. They chronicle everything Jones saw in Fulton County from the evening of Monday, Nov. 2, the day before the election, through late Saturday, Nov. 7, when the last ballots were counted.
“It’s not what it looks like during the election. It’s what happens after the election and what it looks like at the end,” Jones said in an exclusive interview with the AP on Wednesday. “Fulton was able to make their numbers zero out and there was nothing that should challenge the certification of this election.”
Jones, who was appointed to ensure the county's compliance with a consent agreement and has previous experience working on elections in other parts of the world, said he spent nearly 270 hours observing the county's election processes and saw no evidence of “any dishonesty, fraud or intentional malfeasance.”
After losing Georgia by about 12,000 votes, then-President Donald Trump fixated on the state. Making false claims of widespread voter fraud, he and his allies zoomed in on Fulton County, which has long had issues with its elections and has been a frequent punching bag for the GOP, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Fulton County includes most of Atlanta and reliably votes for Democrats in statewide and national elections. With roughly 822,500 active voters, the county accounts for about 11% of the state’s electorate. The county is about 46% white, 45% Black and about 8% people of Asian descent, according to U.S. census data.
The county’s primary last June was plagued by problems, including hourslong lines and absentee ballots that were requested but never received, and the State Election Board entered into a consent order with the county to make changes for the general election. That included the appointment of Jones as an independent monitor.
In a statement Wednesday, Raffensperger noted Jones’ findings of continued problems and said it was important to have him there as “eyes and ears on the ground.”
Jones said the election operations were characterized by systemic poor management and there were also chain of custody problems and ballot bags that often weren't sealed. While he realizes many of those problems contribute to some people's doubts about the security of the election, he said the fact that he was there and “neurotically took notes” during the many hours he spent observing should provide some comfort.
He also noted that while the process was messy, the county managed to get it right in the end.
“They got it over the goal line. They made their numbers add up," he said. "Yes, the vehicle was held together by duct tape and chewing gum, but it got over the goal line.”
Fulton County officials have consistently defended their handling of the election.
“The votes have been counted multiple times, including a hand recount, and no evidence of fraud has been found,” County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts said last month. “The fact remains that Fulton County safely and securely carried out an election in the midst of a public health crisis.”
Jones' observations and reports are also meant to help Fulton County going forward, and he noted that between the November general election and a January runoff the county made some significant improvements. But he said he hasn't seen any change to address systemic management problems.
“Fulton needs to address these mismanagement issues because they are becoming serious,” Jones said. "I mean, the eyes of the world are on the county and, you know, they’ve got butterfingers.”
When he arrived at the elections warehouse just after 8 p.m. the night before the election, Jones wrote, he encountered a chaotic scene. County elections director Rick Barron was resetting some machines used to check in voters, some sensitive equipment was left outside on the loading dock — “Thankfully the seals were intact,” Jones noted — and Jones himself jumped in to help organize a pile of equipment bags.
On Election Day, scanners were jamming and other equipment sometimes went down, ballots weren’t always transferred as securely as they should have been, and bottlenecks at certain points meant some workers were waiting around with nothing to do only to have an overwhelming deluge of work arrive later, Jones wrote.
As the week wore on and with intense pressure to get all the ballots counted, Jones wrote that election workers were tired and making mistakes, which led to some work needing to be redone. Miscommunication sometimes led to confusion and Jones also had some concerns about the ways that ballots were transferred and stored.
He recognized that some of the sloppiness likely contributed to misconceptions and suspicions of fraud.
For example, he wrote that a batch of provisional ballots that had been verified at another location was wheeled in through the back door at one point on the Thursday after the election.
“Party poll watchers very interested in these ballots that just came in through the back door. The GOP poll watchers are feverishly typing on their phones now,” he wrote, adding that county officials took his suggestion to hold a news conference to explain so they wouldn’t “have a media mess on their hands.”
Jones described several unpleasant interactions with party poll watchers, including one who called him a traitor and others who complained about their level of access.
He also mentioned rumors, including persistent talk about “suitcases filled with ballots” that stemmed from a widely circulated video from State Farm Arena, where ballots were being tallied. Those are standard ballot bins used all over the state, he said: “So they’re not mysteries, they’re not suitcases, they’re ballots.”
Of that and other allegations he says were easily debunked, Jones said: “At a certain point, it’s people willing to believe the worst in other people to justify a narrative that they have themselves.”