ATLANTA — Aided by a treasure hunter, the tea party and an unshakable belief that the presidential election was rigged, a group of skeptics may soon inspect Georgia absentee ballots in an attempt to find counterfeits.
The court-ordered review is the latest attempt to question results that have repeatedly withstood scrutiny, with no evidence of widespread fraud. Georgia election officials counted ballots three times, audited voter signatures, opened dozens of investigations and certified Democrat Joe Biden's 12,000-vote win over Republican Donald Trump.
But prior investigations didn't go far enough, according to the plaintiffs and many other Georgians who doubt the integrity of the election after Trump lost and blamed "fraud." They say malfeasance hasn't been proven because the government hasn't looked hard enough.
The upcoming review of about 147,000 absentee ballots in Fulton County could put concerns to rest — or fuel more suspicions by those who refuse to believe Trump lost. No matter its outcome, the ballot review won't change last year's election results.
A judge had planned to consider procedures for the ballot inspection on Friday, but the meeting was postponed as he considers motions by Fulton County to dismiss the case.
Unlike an ongoing review in Arizona, the original paper ballots would remain in Fulton County's possession, and there's no public recount. Instead, Fulton election officials would create high-resolution digital images of ballots for the plaintiffs to scrutinize and later present their findings in court.
A judge granted the review in a lawsuit that includes testimony of Republican Party members who say they witnessed "pristine" absentee ballots, with no folds and perfectly filled-in ovals. The case also alleges sharp vote increases for Biden late on election night in the heavily Democratic county, home of the city of Atlanta.
"We're six months after the election, and none of these anomalies can be explained. There's just this massive cover-up," said Garland Favorito, the lead plaintiff in the suit. "Our case certainly would not be the end. We believe this type of potential counterfeit ballots exist in other counties. It's not just Fulton."
However, state investigators have looked into many of Favorito's suspicions and found no fraud. Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger countered allegations about ballot authenticity, voting machines and ineligible voters in a letter to Congress as it was certifying the presidential election in January.
Favorito is a longtime voting integrity advocate who has promoted unsubstantiated theories surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Though Favorito says he voted for a third-party candidate, his lawsuit has the backing of Republicans and Trump supporters. The Tea Party Patriots filed a court brief supporting the case, and its key witnesses include Republicans such as Suzi Voyles, a former executive director for the Fulton County Republican Party.
One of Favorito's consultants reviewing ballot images is Jovan Pulitzer, an inventor and former treasure hunter who searched for the Ark of the Covenant. Along with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, Pulitzer spread election fraud conspiracies during a state Senate hearing at the Georgia Capitol last December. Pulitzer's ballot inspection technology is being used in Arizona's ballot audit as well.
An attorney for Favorito, Todd Harding, has been involved in at least three other lawsuits alleging fraud in Georgia's November and January U.S. Senate elections. Harding did not respond to a request for comment.
"This is nothing more than a circus that's being put on by those who promote the Big Lie" that Trump won the election, said Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts. "Where does it end? The votes have been counted. The elections have been certified. It's over."
Kurt Hilbert, the attorney representing the tea party group, said only a forensic inspection of the ballots will reveal the truth about the 2020 election.
"There should be nothing to hide," Hilbert said. "Tea Party Patriots, the citizens of Georgia and the former president have a right to know exactly what happened and how many ballots were illegally cast and counted."
About 76 percent of Republican voters in Georgia said in a survey that Biden won as a result of fraud, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released in February. By comparison, just 4 percent of Democrats thought there was substantial fraud. Overall, 38 percent of voters said they believed there was significant fraud in the election.
Other groups have condemned the review.
Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said the review is "built on conspiracy theories that these characters are using to bankroll their pockets and sow seeds of disinformation."
Dennis said a better way for skeptics to increase confidence in elections is to become involved in them.
"What this (review) is doing is not making Georgia better," Dennis said. "It's making Georgia worse."
Citing state and federal law, Superior Court Judge Brian Amero ruled that ballots must remain in the custody of county election officials. Maintaining government control of ballots will prevent the possibility that they could be altered by those conducting the review.
The lawsuit is based on affidavits from several partisan election observers and volunteers at the World Congress Center during Georgia's hand recount last November. Some reported boxes of ballots entirely cast for Biden; others doubted the authenticity of absentee ballots that hadn't been folded when returned in an envelope by mail.
There are several reasons why absentee ballots wouldn't have creases, said Joseph Kirk, elections director in Bartow County northwest of Atlanta, which conducted an audit of U.S. Senate runoffs in January.
Ballots are duplicated anytime they can't be scanned, such as when they're damaged in the mail or when opened by poll workers, said Kirk, who is not involved in the Fulton case. Ballots printed by military and overseas voters, and then mailed back to Georgia, also need to be duplicated to be read by scanners.
The lawsuit also repeats a claim about ballot-counting late on election night at State Farm Arena, an allegation repeated by Trump when he questioned "suitcases" of ballots. Surveillance video shows election workers opened the ballot storage containers after a supervisor told them to keep counting rather than go home for the night.
While Fulton's elections office had some "sloppy" ballot handling procedures, that doesn't mean there was fraud, according to a monitor installed in the county before November by the Republican-led State Election Board.
"At no time did I ever observe any conduct by Fulton County election officials that involved dishonesty, fraud or intentional malfeasance," wrote Carter Page in his February report to the board. "During my weeks of monitoring, I witnessed neither 'ballot stuffing' nor 'double-counting' nor any other fraudulent conduct."
Unproven allegations of fraud contributed to Georgia's new voting law, passed by the majority-Republican General Assembly this spring.
The law tightens absentee ballot restrictions in a number of ways, limiting drop boxes, changing ID requirements and requiring ballots to be printed on security paper.
Instead of increasing confidence in elections, repeated ballot reviews can create the appearance of impropriety long after elections have concluded, said Tammy Patrick, an adviser at The Democracy Fund, a voting rights organization.
"The precedent this sets is that if you don't like the outcome of an election, you can drag it out into perpetuity," said Patrick, who previously oversaw post-election audits in Maricopa County in Arizona. "They're continuing to drive the narrative that the election was stolen, and there's no answer that will satisfy them."
How Georgia's ballot review might work
A judge granted a motion to unseal all of Fulton County's absentee ballots for inspection and scanning, but the details and timing of the review haven't been decided.
The judge said ballots must remain in the county's custody, preventing the kind of allegations of mishandled ballots that have surfaced in an audit of ballots of Arizona.
That means county election workers would have to scan absentee ballots and then save high-resolution images on memory cards for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to review. The plaintiffs are also seeking an in-person review to try to find counterfeit ballots, but they probably won't be allowed to touch them.
The memory card images would then be reviewed by experts hired by the plaintiffs, with their findings used in future legal proceedings. The analysis could take months.