State panel to watch for voter fraud as primary shifts to absentee ballots

    Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced this week members of an Absentee Ballot Fraud Task Force to monitor the upcoming June 9 election. Raffensperger's office mailed out 6.9 million absentee ballot applications so voters can avoid casting ballots at precincts. Photo illustration by Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

    Georgia’s top election official has launched a new panel that he says will help sharpen his office’s focus on any fraud that could accompany a likely surge in absentee voting this year.

    Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger hasn’t publicly named the members of a new task force, but says he will tap election experts, district attorneys and solicitor generals to sit on it. A spokesman said the appointees should be announced in the coming days.

    The new initiative follows Raffensperger’s decision to send Georgia’s 6.9 million active voters an absentee ballot application as a way of encouraging a safe alternative to in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    That triggered consternation among some of his Republican colleagues, who would rather see the May 19 primary delayed until voters are cleared to venture out to the polls. Georgia’s March 24 presidential primary was already postponed and aligned with May voting because of the coronavirus.

    Raffensperger has said that he lacks the authority to push back an election since the governor’s public health emergency is set to expire on April 13.

    “The absentee ballot fraud task force is created to ensure that even as the way we vote may fluctuate, the power of that vote does not,” Raffensperger said Monday. “The task force will be responsible for upholding the integrity of the vote in Georgia. Whether at the ballot box or the mailbox, America is founded on the principle that every citizen gets one vote.”

    Specifically, Raffensperger said his anti-fraud panel will work with his office to investigate signature mismatches, multiple voters with the same address and registrations tied to non-residential addresses.

    He said the group would also draft proposed legislation that would make it a crime to vote in a federal election in Georgia and in another state at the same time.

    The announcement quickly drew a rebuke from the Democratic Party of Georgia. Scott Hogan, the group’s director, said there is no evidence that voter fraud is a problem in Georgia and called the task force “state-sponsored voter intimidation, full stop.”

    “It is clear the secretary is caving into pressure by the Georgia GOP, who, upon discovering that Georgians would have a way to access the ballot amid a global health pandemic, went on record saying higher turnout would be devastating for Republicans,” Hogan said in a statement. “It is despicable that Republicans in Georgia are leveraging a global health emergency as an excuse to further suppress the vote.”

    Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said the focus of election officials is misplaced.

    “Election officials should focus their attention on helping people vote with things like paid postage rather than frightening them,” Young said. “The legacy of voter suppression in Georgia creates enough of a hurdle for people voting by mail for the first time.”

    House Speaker David Ralston, who is among those pushing for a delayed election, was criticized earlier by civil rights groups for saying a rise in absentee voting could hurt Republicans. He later clarified that he meant to say he was troubled that more voting by mail could lead to increased fraud.

    Ralston’s spokesman, Kaleb McMichen, said Monday that the speaker’s position on when the primary election should be held hasn’t changed.

    “Our outlook remains that the election date should be moved back out of a concern for public health and safety since polling locations will have to be staffed in person regardless of the availability of absentee ballots,” McMichen said. “Nothing said or announced today (Monday) has alleviated any of the Speaker’s concerns with the May 19th election date or process. It needs to be moved back.”

    Voting by mail is not new in Georgia, but it’s unusual for voters to receive an unsolicited absentee ballot application in their mailbox. Those who usually do prefer to skip the polls only account for a small number of voters, with about 6% of votes cast through the mail in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

    To receive a ballot, voters must provide their own stamp and send back the absentee ballot application. An email option is also available if someone would prefer to scan or photograph the application.

    The Secretary of State’s Office estimates that it will cost taxpayers about $13 million to send out the applications and the ballots.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.