By Lou Phelps, SBJ
July 6, 2020 – At a Special Called Meeting held today at 4:00 p.m., the Chatham County Board of Elections members would not agree to re-certify what are now corrected election results from the June 9 General Election and Presidential Primary, as reported by Elections Supervisor Russell Bridges.
The meeting, held virtually, was necessary because an error in results previously reported to the Secretary of State in District 2 was caught in the process of recounting all votes cast in the District 2 Chatham County Commissioner’s Democratic Primary election. Previously, there was an only eight vote separated between second and third place finishers, Tony Reilly and Michael Harrington. Local Starland District businessman Clinton Edminster came in first place.
According to Bridges, approximately 200 absentee ballots were scanned twice from voters registered to vote in one precinct in District 2, in Precinct 2-12 Williams Court Apts.
After correcting the error, the votes for each of the three candidates declined, but Reilly gained on Harrington, resulting in a final 33 vote advantage. Previously, Reilly was only ahead by eight votes. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd place results did not change.
After heated questions posed by member Debbie Rauers, seeking explanations on how the mistake happened, Board Chairman Tom Mahoney was forced to accept the reality that the members had too many questions, and were unwilling to vote to re-certify. The motion to re-certify the election results was withdraw by unanimous vote.
Members Anton Lang and Malinda Hodges joined Rauers in asking for explanations. Legally, Mahoney stated that they actually did not need the vote of the Board of Elections, under Georgia Code, and that Elections Supervisor Russell Bridges could re-certify the results on his own.
The 200 paper ballots double scanning was part of the 31,000 absentee ballots processed over the past four weeks. Rauers pressed for explanations of how Bridges was assured that other errors had not occurred.
The absentee vote re-counting was completed last Wednesday morning June 30, with the Board agreeing to the meeting today. The Savannah Business Journal broke the story on July 1 that an error had been found.
“We discovered a difference in poll ballots cast in Precinct 2-12, Williams Court Apts,” Bridges told the Board. “You know in most of the precincts the results came in electronically. But theirs didn’t,” explained Bridges. “And, their ballots were scanned a second time at the poll, and we didn’t catch that. In the original election, they were counted twice. They didn’t bring in their electronic results card.”
All three candidates in the District 2 race lost votes after the corrected results, but because Michael Harrington lost so many in the correct Precinct 2-12 results, Reilly’s total count advantage over him went up overall in District 2, keeping him in second place. The Precinct 2-12 results previously reported, and now after the error was caught are:
CANDIDATE PREVIOUS NOW
Clinton Edminister 344 239
Michael Harrington 127 86
Tony Reilly 93 77
TOTAL CAST 564 402
“Precinct 2-12 did not bring in their flash card,” Bridges repeated. The absentee ballot clerks only had the paper ballots to go with, and made the mistake of scanning the hard copy ballots twice for the batches from that precinct.
Bridges did not offer an explanation to the Board on why he agreed to allow the election processing to be conducted in that manner, versus getting and using the electronic disc from the poll manager which is the comparison, and check-and-balance methodology that was supposed to be followed.
Member Anton Lang said that he was not comfortable with what he was hearing, and his confidence in the election results “were shaken.” Rauers made clear that she would not re-certify. She has raised a number of issues about Bridges handling of the election, going back to the planning stages in April and May.
Hodges said that she wanted to see a written report of the before and after numbers before she would vote to certify, which was not made available to the board members.
In the end, Mahoney realized that he was not going to get the majority to re-certify today.
“I’d prefer that we just withdraw the motion, and we’ll re-certify the election,” Mahoney said (meaning him and Bridges.)
Debbie Rauers asked Mahoney to tell her where that was in the Georgia Code that the Board of Elections agreement was not necessary.
Anton Lang withdrew his motion to certify the election, which was unanimous.
Malinda Scott Hodge asked "how soon could we have the information, on the breakdown before and after, with the new numbers?" There was no side by side comparison available however, because there are separate databases being used, explained Bridges.
Mahoney said that he was calling the question, and that the questions were being asked by members were not part of the re-certification that was the only item on the meeting’s agenda. Lang disagreed with him, stating that the questions were part of the re-certification item on the agenda.
Marianne Himes said that she agreed “to a point of what was being said her,” after Anton Lang spoke, but said since no other races were effected, she appeared to be in agreement to re-certify. But, it never came to a vote.
The mistake would not have been discovered had no recount been requested, Rauers pointed out, and again pressed Bridges on how he could state that there were no other mistakes made. He acknowledged that they did not get back the electronic disc from at least three precincts, but stated that he was confident in the results now reported.
“We felt it was more prudent to disclose the mistake,” he said.
No one made a motion to adjourn, leading Mahoney to say, “Well, I guess we’re adjourned.”
“We’re trying to find what’s going on,” responded Rauers. “We need to have our next meeting in person so no one is dropped from a call,” as Lang got dropped from the Zoom meeting.
The Aug. 11 run-off election will have four races in Chatham County on the ballot, with various races in various parts of Chatham County.
The mistake caught in Precinct 2-12 does not effect any other races in Chatham County because all other margins were in excess of 200 votes.