For the past seven months, misinformation and false claims of fraud in Fulton County have dominated certain corners of the Internet and the Republican Party, with many refusing to accept results that showed three separate times that Donald Trump lost Georgia.

This story also appeared in Georgia Public Broadcasting

Georgia’s most populous county is home to the heavily Democratic city of Atlanta — and a history of problems and shortcomings with election administration.

But ever since November’s presidential race saw President Joe Biden flip Georgia by about 12,000 votes, some pro-Trump media outlets and politicians have zeroed in on Fulton in search of a smoking gun that would prove massive fraud cost the former president a victory. Those calls have come even after a full hand count risk-limiting audit (RLA) confirmed Biden’s victory and a Trump campaign-ordered recount validated victory once more.

In recent weeks: A Newsmax personality launched a weekend of fantastical speculation about an alarm at a building that included Fulton’s ballot warehouse; a Constitution Party officer who’s espoused fringe views about 9/11, presidential assassinations and elections for years has advanced a lawsuit seeking to find “counterfeit absentee ballots;” and prominent lawmakers have suggested that evidence would emerge that could result in decertification of the election — all as election workers continue to face death threats for doing their jobs.

Ahead of a hearing on the lawsuit seeking to inspect images of Fulton’s absentee ballots for fraud, a pair of pro-Trump media outlets have pushed false and misleading stories about the county’s absentee drop box documentation and risk-limiting audit forms, implying or outright stating — but without real evidence — that the already-certified election should be overturned.  

Fulton County drop box forms

One claim is that Fulton County is missing hundreds of transfer records for thousands of absentee ballots deposited in 38 drop boxes ahead of November’s election, with an implication that the missing paperwork could or should invalidate more ballots than the margin of Biden’s victory.

Earlier this week, a pro-Trump media outlet that has amplified calls for a so-called “forensic audit” of the election kicked off a firestorm of criticism, asserting the county was missing 385 absentee ballot transfer forms used to document how many ballots were retrieved from drop boxes daily and suggesting the provenance of nearly 19,000 ballots were questionable.

This comes from an ongoing open records request that the Georgia Star News made to Fulton for all transfer forms from the Nov. 3 election. The media outlet only received a portion of Fulton’s forms. 

According to Georgia Star News, an elections worker emailed the outlet stating that “a few forms are missing” and that “some procedural paperwork may have been misplaced” and the county disputed that 19,000 ballots were unaccounted for. 

Then, the story published and rocketed across the pro-Trump mediasphere, prompting Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (who faces his own pro-Trump primary challenge from election denier Rep. Jody Hice) to announce an investigation in the county’s actions and further fanning the flames.

But after GPB News asked the county Monday about the forms not included in the Georgia Star’s records request, elections staff located all but eight of the more than 1,500 forms, sent them to state investigators and provided them to GPB News on a flash drive.

According to an analysis of the scanned transfer forms and a spreadsheet from Fulton elections, nearly 79,000 ballots were deposited in the county’s 38 drop boxes — or more than half of mail-in ballots cast in the election. 

Jessica Corbitt, a Fulton spokeswoman, said that the county followed proper procedures in collecting the drop box ballots and the county was continuing to research the few remaining. Fulton elections director Rick Barron said in an elections board meeting Thursday that staff spent more than 200 hours this week locating the forms, to counter the claims of “missing” forms.

Absentee drop boxes were authorized by an emergency State Election Board rule last year, which included the requirement of 24/7 video surveillance of the boxes as well as the transfer forms filled out by a two-person collection team. While the forms are required by rule, they are not part of the verification process to determine if an absentee ballot is legally cast and counted. 

Some of the transfer forms show ballots returned without envelopes, making them ineligible to be counted. Others were from different counties or even different states — also not counted. 

If Fulton County is unable to find the handful of transfer forms, they could be sent to the State Election Board for investigation, just as in Coffee, Grady and Taylor counties — and the forms have no effect on the authenticity of ballots or count of the election. Every ballot that is returned is tied to a voter, matched with an application for a ballot, and authenticated by poll workers before counting.

GPB News has obtained records for all 123 counties that used drop boxes, countering claims among some pro-Trump media outlets that there are more than 300,000 ballots’ worth of forms “missing” statewide.

Grady County’s registrar sent an email to the state saying there are no forms because “I am the only one in my office, and I was the only one who emptied the drop box every day.” Taylor County’s registrar said she did not keep track and asked “How am I going to be able to do these forms?”

Those investigations are ongoing.

Fulton County risk-limiting audit

Thursday morning, a report by Just The News used selectively edited notes from a state-appointed monitor and a misunderstanding of elections and the risk-limiting audit process to claim that ballots “may be missing.”

The article notes that in the tally sheet documents uploaded on the state’s website, Fulton has several data entry errors — appearing to duplicate batches, missing some batch numbers and failing to check boxes about unsealing the container before counting.

But there are more human explanations to the paperwork — as well as a reminder that the results of that audit were not certified and did not affect the initial or final counts of the election.

After the first results of the election, Georgia’s 159 counties conducted a full hand-count risk-limiting audit: a post-election audit that is designed to determine if the correct winner won, not verify the precise margin. Typically, an RLA would use a smaller, statistically significant random sampling of ballots that are hand counted and compared to the results. But because the margin in the presidential contest was narrow and attention was so high, the state ordered all the ballots to be hand counted.

During the RLA process, some counties discovered ballots that were not included in the original tally, but the results of the RLA did not change the results of the election. Any mistakes were incorporated into a machine recount requested by the Trump campaign after the RLA.

As for the missing batch numbers and duplicate batches, Georgia’s RLA used a software called Arlo from a company called VotingWorks, who helped the state conduct the audit. Once the audit teams counted their batches and filled out the tally sheets, the batches were entered into the system. Fulton officials said it was not easy to see previous batches entered to ensure there was not duplication.

There are 1,927 tally sheets on the Fulton documents section of the state’s RLA results, and 1,916 rows of batches on the state’s Excel spreadsheet. Additionally, Fulton’s election results saw Joe Biden get 381,144 votes and Donald Trump get 137,240 votes. The RLA tallies show 381,179 votes for Biden and 137,620 votes for Trump, confirming Biden won and coming within 0.1% of the ballots cast the first time.

As for the notes from Seven Hills Strategies that suggest fraudulent activity, according to copies of the reports obtained by GPB News, the monitor found plenty of parts of the process that need improvement, but no evidence of fraud.

It is also important to remember the context for these claims as well as the messengers: All of this comes days before a hearing to potentially dismiss a case seeking to inspect higher resolution scans of Fulton’s absentee ballots that many in the pro-Trump sphere are heralding as the doorway to somehow “forensically audit” Georgia’s votes — a fantasy that is undermining trust in the Republican-picked and Republican-controlled election system ahead of a contentious 2022 statewide election.

This story comes to The Current through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Stephen Fowler/GPB News

Stephen Fowler is political reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting.