Authorities are investigating whether a crime was committed when someone cast a mail ballot in the Nov. 3 election in the name of U.S. Navy veteran Edward Skwiot of Trenton, Georgia, who died in 2015 at the age of 82.
The vote was held up as an example this week by the re-election campaign of President Donald Trump, who is trying to overcome his loss to Democrat Joe Biden with legal challenges.
Biden is winning 77.3 million to 72.2 million in the popular vote, and 290 to 217 in the Electoral College, as counting and certification efforts continue across the nation. Trump is focusing on battleground states such as Georgia, where Biden leads by 14,071 votes and a recount is in the offing.
Chris Arnt, the district attorney for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, told the Times Free Press that his office is aware of the Skwiot voting issue and is investigating the case along with the Dade County Sheriff's Office.
Even though there are a lot of questions up in the air at this point, one thing is clear: someone seems to have requested a ballot for Skwiot and someone submitted a ballot with his name on it.
"The trick is determining who did that," Arnt said. "We're in the phase of trying to investigate, seeing if we can figure out who is responsible for this and then we'll determine what steps to take from there."
Arnt said it's unclear how often this type of incident happens.
"It occurs far too often than it should across the country," Arnt said. "Most of the time it's something like this where it's one vote or a handful of votes. I think that's probably why you're going to see most of the Trump legal challenges not succeed because you're not going to be able to prove 150,000 votes of fraud. There are a lot of irregularities and things that are suspicious, but being able to prove that a vote was fraudulent is a very high threshold."
Submitting an absentee ballot of a person who has died is considered a crime that is punishable with jail time. A man in Los Angeles County was charged with felony voter fraud in August for voting in the name of his deceased mother in three elections from 2012 to 2014. An Illinois woman in 2016 faced felony charges, for voting in her dead husband's name. She said she had no regrets, as she knew he would have wanted to vote for Trump.
In the Georgia case, Skwiot died April 28, 2015, at his home in Trenton. According to the Georgia secretary of state's "My Voter" page, a ballot with Skwiot's name was accepted Oct. 19 after an absentee ballot was requested Oct. 1.
Tammie Vaughan, Dade County's elections supervisor, said this is the first time she remembers an incident like this happening in her 14 years as elections supervisor.
Regardless of what happens with investigations by the DA, the sheriff and the Secretary of State's Office, it's too late to do anything about Skwiot's ballot itself. It would have been counted for the Nov. 3 election, and would therefore be counted again during Georgia's hand recount.
"With secret ballots, there is no way to know which ballot not to count," said Walter Jones of the Secretary of State's Office.
Skwiot's ballot, according to Georgia's election website, was requested and accepted at the house in Trenton where he and his wife Doris lived. Doris hasn't lived at the house for at least three years. She now lives in Catoosa County. When asked if the investigation team had visited the house yet, Arnt said he couldn't talk about details in the ongoing investigation.
Property records show a Belinda Sharp now owns the home on Bell Circle in Trenton. A Times Free Press reporter knocked on the front door Thursday afternoon but no one answered. Efforts to reach Sharp by telephone were unsuccessful.
Skwiot's vote was cast despite the state purging more than 300,000 voters from the registered list under a 1993 federal law that requires states to maintain their voter-registration lists.
Georgia is one of nine states that cancel the registration of people who have not had contact with the registration system for a period of time and have not responded to mail sent to their last known address asking for confirmation.
In December, as part of the statewide purge, Dade County removed 698 voters from the rolls. Skwiot doesn't seem to be one of those voters.
A federal judge allowed Georgia's purge to move forward despite a lawsuit filed by Stacey Abrams' voting rights group Fair Fight Action. Fair Fight Action unsuccessfully argued the purge would disenfranchise some 120,000 inactive voters who remain eligible to vote despite a lapse in balloting activity.
Contact Patrick Filbin at email@example.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.