Ballot error may have cost GA rep. race

Georgia State Rep. Dan Gasaway is suing after he lost by 67 votes, but 70 people were given the wrong ballots. CNN's Drew Griffin investigates.

Posted: Sep 12, 2018 5:08 AM
Updated: Sep 12, 2018 5:08 AM

A rural state Legislature district in Georgia may be forced to redo a contentious primary election between two Republicans due to errors within its voter database.

In May, state Rep. Dan Gasaway lost his seat to businessman Chris Erwin by a slim margin of 67 votes. But the day after the election, Gasaway's wife came home from work and said her colleague couldn't find his name on her ballot even though she lives in his district.

Gasaway grew suspicious. He obtained voter data, plotted voters' addresses on maps of his district and concluded that at least 67 voters -- the margin of victory -- either incorrectly received ballots for another district or should not have been allowed to vote in his district's election at all.

"I realized then we had a serious problem," Gasaway told CNN, claiming that mistakes by local election administrators could have cost him the race. Six thousand votes had been cast, and the secretary of state's office, which oversees the state's elections, had certified the results. No Democratic candidates ran for the seat.

RELATED: 6 million Georgia voters' records exposed: 'Could have easily been compromised'

Gasaway filed a lawsuit in June demanding a do-over against Erwin. Officials in Habersham County, which occupies much of his district in Northeast Georgia, conceded in August that "errors were made" and called for a new election.

County officials say the decision on whether to take the rare step of holding another primary election rests with the judge who's presiding over the case.

Election security observers and activists in Georgia say the situation in Gasaway's district adds to growing concerns about the integrity of the state's voting system and spotlights the way discrepancies in voter data can potentially affect election results.

The secretary of state's office says Georgia's voting system remains secure ahead of November's midterm elections.

But court filings in a separate federal lawsuit outline confusing issues at polling places in other parts of Georgia in recent years, such as voters confirming their assigned polling places on the state's elections website and later being told by poll workers they're assigned elsewhere.

"Unauthorized changes in the voter registration records have changed polling places and assigned voters to improper districts," the federal suit states, citing one case.

That suit argues Georgia should implement paper-ballot-based voting so that results can be audited.

Documents filed with the federal case show differences in 2017 between the number of people reported as voting in certain polling places in Fulton County and the number of ballots cast as reported by voting machine result printouts. A Fulton County official said such discrepancies can occur because the machines voters use to check in "failed to sync," among other reasons, but added that these issues do not affect election results and the elections office can resolve such discrepancies post-election.

Another error in Habersham County incorrectly indicated that its Mud Creek precinct had a 243% voter turnout, though in reality only a fraction of registered voters participated in the May primary election. The "typographical error" had no impact on election results, according to the county.

Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a voting rights advocacy group, argues that many of these issues are symptoms of an overall lack of elections organization and security implemented by the state, which she says has had ripple effects at the county level.

"What we're seeing is a culmination of years of putting elections on the back burner," said Henderson, citing what she described as inadequate funding for elections offices. "This is a problem that has been long rooted in Georgia government."

CNN previously reported how a private researcher discovered the records of more than 6 million registered Georgia voters, password files and encryption keys that could be accessed online by anyone looking for at least six months, according to court documents.

Candice Broce, spokesperson for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said the state ensures fair and accessible elections by requiring certification for local superintendents, offering training resources and assigning state liaisons to assist in local elections operations.

"We continue to work with local, state and federal officials on election security to maintain and preserve the integrity of our electoral process. There is no evidence that any component of the election system has ever been compromised," Broce said.

Although Kemp's office continues to investigate the results of the primary election in Gasaway's district, Broce directed CNN's questions about the apparent errors to Habersham County. "Under state statute, properly districting voters is a county responsibility," she said.

Gasaway's lawsuit charges that the elections board of Habersham County, which oversees voting in part of his district, improperly administered the election and created "cross-contamination" by allocating voters to the wrong state Legislature districts and giving them incorrect ballots.

"Voters that should not have voted in the election did, and voters that should have voted in the election did not," his lawsuit states.

After Gasaway challenged the election results in June, Habersham County launched an internal review that determined 70 people had voted in the wrong districts, according to the county's attorney, Donnie Hunt.

That same month, Habersham County sent a letter to voters that stated, "your address was found to have been placed in the wrong House District due to a past voting precinct redistricting issue," according to a copy obtained by CNN.

Hunt declined to say how many residents received the letter or how many total voters were determined to have been assigned to the wrong district.

Gasaway said he has personally counted about 1,200 misallocated voters within House District 28, which he represents, or the districts that surround it by analyzing voters' addresses and district maps, though he said not all of those residents voted in the May 22 primary.

Although Habersham County sought to dismiss Gasaway's case in June, the chairman of the county's board of commissioners, Victor Anderson, called in August for a new election and stated the number of voters who voted in the wrong district exceeded the margin of victory.

Anderson characterized the underlying problem to CNN as a series of administrative errors.

"It was the combination of many things, not the least of which was the complicated boundary between the two districts and changes made to voting precincts in recent years," Anderson said.

Anderson added that there has not been a formal conclusion on the cause of the errors. He deferred to the secretary of state's office to make that determination.

Banks and Stephens counties, which also make up Gasaway's district, have not called for a new election. The election supervisor for Banks County, Andra Phagan, said she is awaiting the court's ruling. An attorney for Stephens County told CNN, "If the courts determine that adequate grounds exist to call for a new election, then Stephens County will comply with and fully cooperate with the direction from the court."

Although Gasaway's lawsuit originally named Kemp as a defendant in the case, he has since been removed from the suit.

Kemp, the GOP nominee for governor, who beat the state's lieutenant governor in a primary with President Donald Trump's backing, has criticized news reports that raise questions about the integrity of state election systems. However, Kemp also leads a Georgia commission that's researching ways to improve the state's aging voter system, and he supports the deployment of a new system by the 2020 election.

Gasaway said that if he gets another election and wins, he will have a new cause to fight for.

"I've learned through this process some things as a legislator I could do to add some checks and balances so that this type of thing doesn't happen again," Gasaway said.

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