“Thank you and congratulations to Laura Baigert of the Georgia Star News on the incredible reporting you have done. Keep going! The scam is all unraveling fast.”

— Former president Donald Trump, in a statement, June 17

False and misleading claims that cast doubt on Georgia’s 2020 election results continue to pop up seven months after the vote, and Trump keeps promoting them.

We have a high bar for fact-checking the former president these days, but this claim about an election “scam” in the Atlanta area carries weight. The state launched an investigation based on the same reports Trump is referencing from a website called the Georgia Star News.

But there is no evidence of a scam unraveling in Georgia, only shoddy record-keeping by local election officials.

The Facts

Joe Biden unexpectedly won Georgia by 11,779 votes of about 5 million cast, according to a hand recount of the votes that was done as part of a risk-limiting audit and that was later confirmed by a second recount.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, election officials authorized the use of ballot drop boxes by emergency rule. County officials had to fill out forms noting the date, time, location and number of ballots collected from each drop box.

The Georgia Star News, a pro-Trump publication, says it filed public-records requests with every county in the state, seeking the chain-of-custody forms that track the movements of all ballots deposited in drop boxes for the November election.

When Fulton County, the state’s most populous, responded to the request months later, the documents were incomplete. After several follow-up requests, Fulton County officials supplied 1,180 of 1,565 ballot transfer forms.

The missing forms accounted for 18,901 ballots, the Georgia Star News said. In a story June 14, the publication noted that 18,901 was “greater than the less than 12,000 vote margin of Biden’s certified victory in the state.” The same story quoted a Fulton County election official acknowledging that the request for records was not completed.

“We noticed that a few forms are missing, it seems when 25 plus core personnel were quarantined due to positive COVID-19 outbreak at the EPC [Elections Preparation Center], some procedural paperwork may have been misplaced,” Fulton County official Mariska Bodison told the Georgia Star News in an email on June 9.

The Georgia Star News said, “This is the first time that any election official at either the state or county level from a key battleground state has made an admission of significant error in election procedures for the November 3, 2020 election.”

Was it an admission of significant error? The county official said only that “a few forms” were missing. On June 16, two days after this story appeared online, the news organization Georgia Public Broadcasting said it had gotten ahold of almost all the missing records.

“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,” the broadcaster reported, adding that “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.”

By the time that fact check appeared, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) had announced his office would investigate the “revelations” from Fulton County.

“New revelations that Fulton County is unable to produce all ballot drop box transfer documents will be investigated thoroughly, as we have with other counties that failed to follow Georgia rules and regulations regarding drop boxes,” Raffensperger tweeted June 14 in response to the Georgia Star News story. “This cannot continue.”

When we asked whether Fulton County records were indeed missing, a spokesman for Raffensperger, Ari Schaffer, said: “The investigation is still ongoing. The investigation is of Fulton’s statement that they were missing forms, not any other claims made by the Georgia Star.”

After the state conducted a hand recount of its election results in November, Biden’s lead dropped from 12,670 to 11,779, apparently from a revision in Fulton County. The recount showed 880 fewer votes there.

Gabriel Sterling, a state elections official in Georgia, called the Fulton County discrepancy “a little worrisome” but said it was a big county with a history of managerial issues. He also noted the difference in vote totals was not enough to change the outcome in Georgia, according to the Associated Press.

Raffensperger has been critical of Fulton County’s election management and has suggested several changes, although he also has defended the integrity of the county’s vote results in 2020.

The county, covering much of metro Atlanta, was in short supply of trained poll workers last year and had long lines because of a shortage of voting machines, among other issues. An audit of Fulton County by a nonpartisan monitor appointed by the state elections board found “persistent chain of custody issues throughout the entire absentee ballot processing system” and blamed bad management.

The auditor said “the fact that ballots were being delivered to State Farm Arena in unsecured mail carts is very concerning. Protocol for securing ballots exists not only to protect the ballots themselves but also to ensure that no ballot box stuffing occurred.”

The auditor also reported: “From October to January, I spent nearly 270 hours at various locations observing every aspect of Fulton County’s election processes. At no time did I ever observe any conduct by Fulton County election officials that involved dishonesty, fraud, or intentional malfeasance. During my weeks of monitoring, I witnessed neither ‘ballot stuffing’ nor ‘double-counting’ nor any other fraudulent conduct that would undermine the validity, fairness, and accuracy of the results published and certified by Fulton County.”

Fulton County officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Raffensperger has ruled out Trump’s claims of election fraud in Georgia. Trump called the Republican secretary of state a “complete disaster” and falsely claimed his brother “works for China.” This year, Raffensperger is running for reelection and facing a primary challenge from Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), a Trump ally.

The Georgia Star News has been publishing regular updates of how many counties have supplied chain-of-custody documents for their drop boxes, keeping up the pressure on those that delay, as we found in this fact check.

The Georgia secretary of state’s office issued a news release in April debunking the implication that something mysterious was taking place besides tardy replies to a publication.

Of the 123 counties that used drop boxes, “120 have confirmed they filled out and retained ballot transfer forms in accordance with Georgia rules,” the statement said. The other three counties, Coffee, Grady and Taylor, were referred for investigation.

The Pinocchio Test

Despite Trump’s latest claim, there is no evidence of an election “scam” unraveling in Georgia.

In response to a request for public records made by a pro-Trump website, Fulton County officials failed to supply all the forms that track the movements of ballots submitted by drop box.

A Fulton County official acknowledged that the chain-of-custody records it provided to the Georgia Star News were incomplete. Days later, Fulton County provided almost all the records to Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Sloppy? Yes. But shoddy record-keeping by itself does not constitute evidence of election fraud.

We will keep a close watch on developments in Raffensperger’s investigation, and it bears keeping in mind that Fulton County has a history of election management issues, including an audit that found problems with keeping chain-of-custody records for ballots in last year’s election at the same time that it affirmed election workers’ integrity.

For now, without evidence to justify accusations of an election “scam” in Fulton County, Trump earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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