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Questions persist over early dismissal of Atlanta poll workers, alleged secret ballot counting

News reports, affidavits indicate workers sent home early; state officials dispute some elements.

Published: December 8, 2020 11:48am

Updated: December 9, 2020 8:44am

Critical questions still remain unresolved this week regarding the alleged early dismissal of poll workers in Atlanta's State Farm Arena on Election Night, a dismissal which some parties claim was followed by continued ballot-counting even after most workers had been sent home for the night. 

The State Farm Arena saga has been one of the latest in a series of election-related controversies that have persisted for over a month since the final ballots were cast in the 2020 election. The president's legal team brought the Atlanta Hawks stadium to the forefront of the ongoing election debate last week when they revealed security footage that, they argued, showed election malfeasance and potential ballot fraud caught on video.

Lawyers for the Trump campaign claimed the footage showed the majority of poll workers being dismissed early from their posts at the arena on Election Night, after which, the campaign argued, a secret team of ballot counters can be seen resuming the ballot count in a largely empty processing area. 

Media reports and some affidavits have appeared to confirm at least part of that contention, though public officials have given mixed responses that have left the ultimate facts of the issue as unclear as ever. 

'A small team remained behind'

The Georgia Secretary of State's office last week confirmed that it was investigating whether or not poll workers were explicitly told to go home early or if they simply misunderstood confusing directives from government officials.

The contention that workers were told to go home has been supported by several sources, including an ABC News report from late on Election Night. That report stated that Fulton County spokeswoman Regina Waller told the news network that "the election department sent the State Farm Arena absentee ballot counters home at 10:30 p.m. despite earlier intentions to complete processing Tuesday night," the news network said.

"Some additional numbers could still come out Tuesday night, but as of now the staff will be back at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday," the report added. 

CNN also reported on Election Night that local officials said they "stopped tabulating absentee/mail-in ballots around 10:30 p.m." Local NBC affiliate WXIA also reported on Election Night that Fulton County officials "sent ballot counters home at 10:30 p.m. and said they'd return at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday." In at least one report they cited Waller for that information. That stopping time was also reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That description of events has also been supported by an affidavit by Michelle Branton, a resident of Cobb County, Georgia who worked as a poll watcher at the State Farm Arena on Election Night. 

Branton, a field organizer for the Georgia Republican Party, said in the affidavit that, “at approximately 10:30 p.m., a woman [in the ballot-counting area] yelled to everyone to stop working and to return the next day at 8:30 a.m.”

After that directive, Branton continued, “nearly all of the staff workers left,” aside from an alleged supervisor, two unidentified women, and Waller herself.

Branton said that shortly after she departed the facilities, she was told that “counting was still going on at State Farm Arena.”

In an email with Just the News, Waller partially disputed that chain of events, including multiple media outlets' coverage of her remarks. 

"I stated to all media including ABC News that although several workers were released to go home, a small team remained behind to assist with scanning ballots," she said. 

Pressed on the multiple news outlets reporting a 10:30 p.m. cutoff for ballot-counting in the arena, Waller responded: "I was not in their news rooms when they developed their stories."

But at least one Secretary of State official has attempted to offer a partial, if uncertain, clarification on what took place at the arena on Election Night. 

Gabriel Sterling, the voting system implementation manager at the Georgia Secretary of State's office, said in a Facebook comment last week that election workers at the stadium "heard a supervisor say we are finishing for the night, because the cutters had completed their work."

Following that announcement, Sterling said, "the elections director called the absentee supervisor at State Farm to tell him the scanners needed to continue their work." Sterling claimed the video shows the scanners continuing to work after other workers had left and following the arrival of monitors from both the state election board and the secretary of state's office. 

"The claim that the monitors were 'told' or 'instructed' to leave is unfortunately a he said/she said situation," Sterling admitted. He estimated that the workers scanned "about 5,000 total ballots from 8:30 to 12:30 or so when they stopped."

Sterling's version of events conflict with the earlier media reports suggesting that ballot counters were directed, and permitted, to leave the arena around 10:30; Sterling's account also conflicts with Branton's sworn testimony claiming that just four individuals—including Waller, an alleged supervisor and one woman "sanitizing the tables and tablecloths"—remained in the arena after 10:30 that night. 

A sworn affidavit from Frances Watson—identified as the Georgia secretary of state's chief investigator—echoed Sterling's remarks. 

“Our investigation discovered that observers and media were not asked to leave,” she said. “They simply left on their own when they saw one group of workers, whose job was only to open envelopes and who had completed that task, also leave.”

Reconciling these various competing claims—sworn testimony from a poll worker and reportage from multiple media outlets indicating that workers were dismissed around 10:30 p.m. on Election Night versus state official claims that only some workers were permitted to leave while others stayed behind to count—may, in the end, prove impossible, resting at least in part as it does, as Sterling noted, on a "he said/she said" dichotomy. 

Still, state officials have pledged to investigate any and all allegations of voter fraud in Georgia. Watson in her affidavit noted the investigation is ongoing.

"We will stop at nothing to guarantee that all Georgians can have faith in the integrity of our election," Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said last week.