Probe of missing Georgia votes finds "extreme" irregularities in black districts

Last year's lieutenant governor race may have had a huge undercount in black precincts. Sound like coincidence?

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published August 30, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

A line forms outside a polling site on election day in Atlanta, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP/David Goldman)
A line forms outside a polling site on election day in Atlanta, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP/David Goldman)

A trove of documents turned over in a congressional probe of missing votes in Georgia’s lieutenant governor race — along with other voting issues — revealed serious irregularities.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is investigating whether voting machine errors caused a large drop-off in votes in the lieutenant governor race between Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico and Republican Geoff Duncan, who won the election by about 123,000 votes. The probe is looking at why so many fewer votes were recorded in the race compared to other statewide races, as well as the voter suppression issues that plagued the 2018 state elections.

There were 159,000 fewer votes cast in the lieutenant governor race than in the gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp. While it is common for down-ballot races to see fewer votes, the lieutenant governor race had twice as much drop-off as other statewide races, even though it was the second race on the ballot, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

There were 80,000 fewer votes cast for lieutenant governor than in other down-ballot races, which represents a 4 percent drop-off from the gubernatorial race, compared to a 2 percent drop-off among even less charismatic down-ballot races. For various reasons, this appears illogical. Historically, the lieutenant governor race has had a much lower drop-off rate than other statewide races in previous elections. 

More than 15,500 pages of documents turned over the to Oversight Committee and obtained by the Journal-Constitution shows that the election was plagued by widespread irregularities.

In one case, a voting machine in Kemp’s home precinct recorded that Republicans won every race, while the other six machines in that same precinct showed that Democrats won every race. The machine showed Republicans winning by roughly the same margin by which Democrats won on the other machines. A statistician’s analysis cited in court documents said “odds of an anomaly that large are less than 1 in 1 million,” the Journal-Constitution reported. 

But the problems were far more widespread. The documents show a decline in votes on electronic voting machines in 101 of the state’s 159 counties, even though paper absentee ballots in the same districts did not show a significant decline. 

An analysis by the Democratic data-tracking firm TargetSmart found that the drop-off “grew even more extreme in precincts with large African American populations,” according to the report.

“I’ve never seen a drop-off pattern like this, ever,” TargetSmart data analyst Chris Brill told the Journal-Constitution. 

The Georgia election as a whole was marred by Republican voter suppression efforts and aging, vulnerable voting machines. The Coalition for Good Governance, an election security group that sued to contest the lieutenant governor race, issued a report alleging that the extreme drop-off in black districts suggests the undervote could not be explained by voters simply skipping that race on their ballots.

“The rates of touchscreen machine–reported undervotes in such precincts in the Lt. Governor contest are far greater than the undervote rates in non–African American neighborhoods regardless of whether those neighborhoods lean Democratic or Republican,” the report said. “The undervote problem did not happen at the same exaggerated levels in many primarily White neighborhoods that overwhelmingly voted for Stacey Abrams and other Democrats, rebutting the argument that the difference can be explained by party-driven voter behavior.”

The group’s analysis found that the drop-off rate in some African-American areas was as high as 13 percent, much higher than the 4 percent statewide figure, The Root reported.

Brill told The Root that TargetSmart’s analysis showed that “as the percentage of the African-American vote would get higher, the undervote would also get higher.”

Brill said in an affidavit filed in court that the results are “extremely suspect and irregular and cast a serious doubt over the accuracy of the final vote and the certified outcome of the lieutenant governor’s contest,” adding that he “finds no reasonable, plausible explanation other than machine malfunction.”

Phillip Stark, a statistician at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a court filing that the undervote rate “strongly suggests that malfunction, misconfiguration, bugs, hacking, or other error or malfeasance caused some DREs [direct recording electronic voting machines] not to record votes in the lieutenant governor’s contest.”

Georgia is one of five states that exclusively uses electronic machines, with no paper backup. Most of the machines in the state are outdated touchscreen devices that are considered vulnerable to hacking. In a ruling earlier this month, federal Judge Amy Totenberg called the state’s machines “unsecure, unreliable and grossly outdated.” Totenberg ordered the state to start using machines with paper backups by next year.

Although there is no clear explanation for what happened to the votes in the lieutenant governor's race, the Georgia Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit filed to challenge Duncan’s election. 

Republican state officials, meanwhile, have been opposed to any sort of review. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has refused to open an investigation into the matter and state officials claimed that the undervote may have been caused by “low interest,” the Journal-Constitution reported, even though other races did not see anywhere near the same drop-off. The secretary of state’s office previously denied Amico’s request for a recount, arguing that it was common for voters to skip down-ballot races without addressing the much higher vote total in other races nor the racial disparity.

Eddie Perez of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, which has pushed for Georgia to adopt hand-marked paper ballots, questioned why officials were so resistant to investigating an election with an inexplicable vote total.

“I don’t know why the state of Georgia appears to be resisting an examination,” Perez told the Journal-Constitution. “They’re not getting any closer to the truth. This really is unusual, and it begs explanation.”

The Coalition for Good Governance is asking the Georgia Supreme Court to consider their lawsuit challenging Duncan’s election after a county judge dismissed the case, even while conceding that there were issues with the entire voting system.

“There is a real wall up and real obstacles to prevent sunshine from coming in and having any kind of election transparency,” Marilyn Marks, the executive director for the Coalition for Good Governance, told the Journal-Constitution. “Let’s find some facts. It’s crazy to think that the paper-ballot voters felt one way about the candidates and the machine voters felt another way.”

Stark, the Berkeley statistician, said in a court filing in the lawsuit that the irregularities are too large to ignore.

“Based on my analysis, described above, and my knowledge of Georgia’s DRE voting system used in the November 6, 2018 election,” he said in an affidavit, “it is my opinion that the certified results of the lieutenant governor’s race are in substantial doubt.”

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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