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Georgia opens probe into drop box ballots, chain of custody in large Democrat county

Probe comes after newspaper report of improper chain of custody documentation, DeKalb County election chief taking leave.

Updated: September 28, 2021 - 12:09pm

The Georgia Secretary of State's office has opened an investigation into the handling of drop box ballots last November in one of the state's Democratic strongholds following a media report that there were problems with chain of custody documentation in DeKalb County.

The probe, confirmed in a statement to Just the News, comes at a tumultuous time for DeKalb County, whose elections director was placed on an extended leave of absence two weeks ago. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's office said the probe is ongoing and the county is cooperating.

"The Secretary of State's office has opened an investigation into the drop box chain of custody documentation for Dekalb County," Raffensperger's office told Just the News. "The investigation includes not only whether Dekalb County properly complied with the documentation required by the State Election Board but also whether the actual procedures used by Dekalb adequately protected chain of custody for ballots returned to drop boxes."

A spokesman for DeKalb County did not immediately return calls or respond to emails from Just the News last week or Monday seeking comment.

The announcement of the probe comes less than a month after the Georgia Star news site reported that 43,907 of the 61,731 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes in the November 2020 presidential election in DeKalb County — 72% —were counted in official tallies certified by the county and the state though they had not met the chain of custody requirements set by the Georgia State Election Board on July 1, 2020.

Raffensperger's office said it did not receive most counties' chain of custody forms for drop box ballots until January and February of this year, well after the election. Since that time, the office has found problems with a handful of counties, mostly small, rural and Republican strongholds.

"As we announced earlier this year, Coffee, Grady, and Taylor counties all failed to complete any ballot transfer documents," the office told Just the News. "They were referred for investigation. In Stephens County, the elections director emptied an absentee ballot drop box on her own instead of with the two people that the State Election Board rule required. Stephen County was referred to the Attorney General's office by the State Election Board."

DeKalb County is the largest county in the state to face questions so far about the chain of custody documents governing drop boxes. Situated just outside the Atlanta metro area, it is one of the largest and most reliable Democrat strongholds in the state outside of Fulton County, which is home to Atlanta. Heavily minority, 83% of DeKalb residents voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump.

The county, however, has faced some internal struggles over election management, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Earlier this month, the county's elections director Erica Hamilton was placed on an extended leave of absence, though no explanation was given for the move, the newspaper reported.

Last year, a consultant raised concerns about DeKalb's elections strategy and preparedness, suggesting a new management structure after concluding that Hamilton "was significantly involved in many day-to-day tasks," which it called noble. However, the consultant wrote, "there are simply too many moving parts to ask [Hamilton] to be the sole operations taskmaster for the organization while also managing policy and executive functions."

Raffensperger's office said despite the new investigation and earlier revelations by Just the News of significant mismanagement and irregularities in Fulton County, he remains confident in the validity of the November 2020 election results in which Biden narrowly defeated Trump, a verdict that the former president has refused to accept.

"We have heard about 'smoking gun' after 'smoking gun' from President Trump and others since Nov. 3 allegedly demonstrating fraud but there's been nothing yet that would put in doubt the results of the 2020 presidential election," Raffensperger's office said. "A monitor appointed by the Secretary of State's office monitored the work by Fulton County during the November 2020 election, for example, and found sloppiness but no fraud. Election workers aren't perfect and do make mistakes but that is a far cry from evidence of fraudulent ballots. Under both state and federal laws, a procedural error by an election worker would not invalidate an otherwise legitimate and proper ballot."

The State Elections Board recently took the first step toward taking control of Fulton County's voter counting operation in time for the 2022 election, a new power the board was granted earlier this year under election integrity reforms passed by the state Legislature.

Raffensperger has long been critical of Fulton County's election operations, including on election night last November. A state monitor sent to observe the vote counting operations in Atlanta later wrote a report identifying 29 pages of problems ranging from double scanning of ballots to potential violations of ballot privacy, Just the News previously has reported.

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