Officials from the Georgia Secretary of State's office met with Porterdale officials Thursday to discuss an elections complaint filed by the outgoing mayor about improper ballot handling.
Judy Johnson, who as city clerk is also the city's elections superintendent, said the investigator who met with her Thursday morning determined there had been a violation of state election law, though she said she did not think at the time that anything inappropriate had happened. Penalties range from a sanction to fines and jail time. It could be several months, however, before a penalty is decided.
"We have our corrective plan of action, and as election superintendent, I take complete responsibility of the burden of ensuring that the election is run properly," Johnson said Thursday afternoon.
The complaint focused on a poll watcher handling paper ballots while votes were tallied after polls closed Nov. 8.
The outcome of the election is not being challenged.
Mayor Bobby Hamby filed the complaint with the Secretary of State, whose office is responsible for overseeing elections, on Nov. 14 following citizen complaints, he said.
“It was brought to my attention that poll watchers were counting ballots and that’s a no-no,” Hamby said. “You’re not supposed to do that. I was on the outside of the building and didn’t realize it had taken place. People were leaving, making comments that they weren’t going to be in there with that going on.”
Specifically, the complaint alleged that a poll watcher, Porterdale resident Joe Bloom, handled paper ballots during counting.
“There were several people in there who should have said something about it and brought it to their (city officials’) attention,” Hamby said.
Matt Carrothers, director of media relations for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said any action on the complaint would be approved by the state election board once the investigation is complete.
“They would determine any sanctions based on the outcome of the investigation,” he said.
Johnson said she told the investigator from the Secretary of State’s office that Bloom did handle ballots after the polls had closed, not realizing at the time that he was not permitted to do so.
“Had I had any knowledge what had taken place was wrong, it wouldn’t have taken place,” Johnson said. “We took a lot of measures to ensure the integrity of the election. I’ll let our workers know we broke the law and go from there.”
The poll for municipal elections in Porterdale is in the fire station. Soon after the poll closed Election Day at 7 p.m., Johnson opened the ballot box in the room where voting took place and read out loud the votes on each ballot, with several poll workers, including City Manager Bob Thomson, keeping count.
The totals taken by poll workers for the mayor’s race and a city council seat did not match after the first tally, and the ballots had to be recounted several times until the totals agreed. At one point in the middle of the recount, Bloom volunteered to hand the paper ballots to Johnson as she read the votes to the poll workers.
More than a dozen people were in the room during the counting, including Johnson, Thomson, Bloom, former city councilor and mayoral candidate Arline Chapman, City Council candidate Tim Savage, City Council candidate Terry Barnes, City Councilor Lowell Chambers, the poll workers and several residents.
“I want to make sure it’s made aware that you can’t do those things when you’re voting and that it doesn’t happen again,” Hamby said. “What’s disappointing is you had the mayor-elect sitting there and three council members sitting there and they never tried to stop it. They should have known better. If I’d been in the room when it happened, I would have (stopped it), but I was on the outside.”
Chapman said Thursday that, along with everyone else present, she did not know Bloom could not handle the ballots.
“I was not aware it was improper,” she said. “Everyone was there watching, and apparently no one else realized it was improper.”
“How knee deep do you want to get into sour grapes?” she said.