Filing boxes sit off to the side at an absentee ballot processing room at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Ga., on Nov. 2, 2020. (Megan Varner/Getty Images) Election Integrity
After several Fulton County, Georgia, poll monitors testified last year that boxes of mail-in ballots for Joe Biden looked liked they’d been run through a photocopy machine, state investigators quietly broke the seal on one suspicious box and inspected the hundreds of votes it contained for signs of fraud, RealClearInvestigations (RCI) has learned exclusively.
At the same time, a key whistleblower told RCI that state investigators pressured her to recant her story about what she and other poll monitors had observed—what they called unusually “pristine” mail-in ballots while sorting through them during last November’s hand recount.
“I felt I was under investigation,” said Suzi Voyles, a longtime Fulton County poll manager whose sworn affidavits have been used by election watchdogs to sue the county for access to the ballots in question.
Although the ballots are at the center of disputes about the Georgia presidential race, which Joe Biden won by just 12,000 votes, the state never disclosed its probe to the public or to election watchdogs suing to inspect the ballots.
State officials also neglected to inform the judge hearing the lawsuit that they were conducting such an inspection, even though the judge had issued a protective order over the ballots in January. In a nine-page amicus brief recently filed in the case, attorneys for the office of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urged Superior Court Judge Brian Amero to deny petitioners’ requests to inspect the ballots, calling them a “fishing expedition.”
Frances Watson, chief investigator for the secretary of state’s office, confirmed in a statement to RCI that she sent investigators to Fulton County earlier this year to inspect the batches of sealed ballots. Poll monitors involved in last November’s hand recount had described the mail-in ballots in sworn affidavits as devoid of creases and folds and featuring identically bubbled-in marks for Biden. The state said it couldn’t find any ballots matching that description.
“Our investigators looked into it and didn’t find anything,” she said, while adding that the investigation is “still ongoing.”
The watchdogs question why state officials didn’t disclose their activities to the court and fear they may have “tampered” with the sealed ballots, which are at the center of the lawsuit seeking access to all 147,000 absentee ballots cast during the 2020 election in Fulton County, which includes much of Atlanta.
Led by longtime Georgia poll watcher Garland Favorito, founder of VoterGA.org, the court petitioners say the state has failed to inform the judge overseeing their case that they broke the chain of custody over the pallets of shrink-wrapped absentee ballots warehoused in a locked county facility in Atlanta.
“If the secretary of state’s office did that, they tampered with the ballots and violated Georgia state law,” which restricts the handling of ballots to authorized elections officials involved in the tabulation and care of the ballots, Favorito said. He also noted that Judge Amero had placed the ballots under a protective order in January. “They would have had to ask for a court order to unseal and inspect those ballots, and they never did that.”
Raffensperger’s office seemed to acknowledge that the ballots were still under seal when it urged Amero to prevent the watchdogs from inspecting the ballots.
“The security and confidentiality of ballots is to be strictly maintained,” attorneys for Raffensperger argued in the brief they filed with Amero in April, “and the court should be cautious in granting petitioners’ access to ballots that Georgia law requires to remain under seal, which makes it a felony as soon as petitioners were to lay hands on them.”
Raffensperger’s office didn’t respond to questions about why it didn’t inform the court about its probe, although it acknowledged that this is the first time its inspection of the ballots—which began in early January—has been publicly disclosed. Judge Amero didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Biden narrowly won Georgia thanks to a late-night tally of absentee ballots in Fulton and other Democratic strongholds. The revelation that state authorities have already unsealed and investigated the ballots in question is a new twist in a case that has seen the firing of poll managers who blew the whistle on the suspicious ballots; a recent breach of security at the warehouse that Fulton County officials were supposed to be guarding around the clock; and an 11th-hour attempt by county officials to dismiss the court-ordered inspection of those ballots—many of which came from Atlanta area drop boxes whose chain of custody documentation has mysteriously gone missing.
Last month, Amero ordered Fulton County to unseal its 147,000 absentee ballots and allow the petitioners to inspect them under certain restrictions, but the county filed a motion to dismiss the case. Amero is expected to rule on the motion later this month.
The issue is further muddied by Suzi Voyles’ allegation, never previously reported, that she was pressured to recant her testimony about the pristine ballots. In sworn affidavits last November, Voyles said she observed that a large batch of mail-in ballots for Biden didn’t appear to have been folded or handled like she would have expected from her two decades of working elections in the county. She also said that the marks for Biden were identical, as though they had been filled in by a copy machine rather than a pen or pencil.
In a Jan. 7 interview, which took place at a secretary of state’s office in Atlanta, Voyles told RCI that an investigator identifying himself as Paul Braun “grilled me for over two hours” about her testimony. She said he was joined by another official whom she said was from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. She said the investigators didn’t have a copy of her affidavit and didn’t know the box number or batch numbers of the ballots in question.
“I smelled a rat when they didn’t know the batch numbers when they were clearly denoted in my affidavit,” Voyles said.
She said the investigators “gave no indication” they had gone to the warehouse to find the suspicious ballots or were conducting any kind of forensic investigation. She said they kept trying to convince her she might have been mistaken about her observations.
“I did not recant,” she said. “The ballots that I saw had been preprinted. It’s a very serious thing, in my opinion. That’s what I swore to under penalty of perjury. Recanting would be perjuring myself.”
Watson told RCI that Voyles “stated that she may have been mistaken about the batch number and provided a different batch number.”
“I never said that,” Voyles insisted.
“The second batch number provided by Ms. Voyles did not exist,” Watson said.
Voyles said she never provided any other batch numbers. Watson also revealed that “investigators went to Fulton County and reviewed the batches identified by Ms. Voyles, but found no ballots that looked as Ms. Voyles described.” Favorito said his group’s attorney plans to file a motion to depose Watson and Braun to understand exactly what investigators have done regarding the boxes of absentee ballots in question.
Favorito said he doesn’t doubt Voyles’ testimony and said the ballot images his group has reviewed support her account of anomalies.
“At no time has Susan Voyles claimed she was mistaken,” Favorito said. “She has consistently stood by her affidavit since she submitted it almost seven months ago.”
Asked if Voyles is under criminal investigation, Georgia Secretary of State Communications Director Ari Schaffer said, “I have no reason to believe she’s under investigation for perjury.”
Last December, Raffensperger “condemned” the unexplained firing of Voyles by Fulton County elections officials and called on them to rehire her.
As RCI reported previously, Voyles is one of four Fulton County poll monitors who signed affidavits swearing they observed the same pattern of irregularities in stacks of mail-in ballots for Biden. All of them suggested the ballots had been photocopied.
Favorito, who didn’t vote for Trump, said the state has also tried to interview another witness—poll monitor Robin Hall—and said he himself is under investigation. He suggested state investigators are trying to intimidate witnesses into backing off their testimony, and are more interested in investigating whistleblowers than finding evidence of ballot fraud.
Schaffer said he’s unsure whether other affiants have been interviewed. “I’ll have to check on the other three” witnesses, he said.
Favorito said the discovery of hard evidence of fraud in Georgia’s largest county would be embarrassing for Raffensperger, who is running for reelection with little support from the Georgia GOP, which recently censured him for creating “opportunities for fraud” by agreeing to the relaxation of voting rules during the 2020 election.
“He is worried that we will uncover serious wrongdoing on the part of the secretary of state, not just Fulton County,” Favorito said.
Voyles pointed out that Raffensperger has been too quick to declare the 2020 Georgia election free of fraud. Most recently, he was blindsided by revelations that Fulton County election officials had “misplaced” the required chain-of-custody forms documenting the collection of almost 20,000 mail-in ballots from 36 largely unsupervised drop boxes Raffensperger agreed to let Democrat-controlled Fulton County distribute across the Atlanta area ahead of the election.
“New revelations that Fulton County is unable to produce all ballot drop-box transfer documents will be investigated thoroughly,” Raffensperger tweeted on June 14, adding that Fulton officials failed to follow state rules regarding the boxes. “This cannot continue.”
Voyles said Raffensperger’s office is increasingly concerned about its preelection decision to mollify demands by a Democratic voter-rights group to make it easier to vote by absentee ballot.
“They are investigating us to divert attention from their consent agreement with [Democratic activist] Stacey Abrams,” Voyles said.
“We never should have had any drop boxes. We wouldn’t have had chain-of-custody problems and the other problems with absentee ballots if they hadn’t put in those drop boxes,” she said. “It was negligence.”