Taxpayer-funded National Public Radio (NPR) spread 2020 election misinformation about absentee ballot drop box chain of custody documents in Georgia in an article written by Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) political reporter Stephen Fowler published on Friday. That article was the basis for a four-minute segment broadcast across NPR’s national network Friday afternoon.
The NPR Politics Twitter account tweeted the story, titled “How Pro-Trump Local News Sites Keep Pushing 2020 Election Misinformation,” out on Friday:
The Star News Network is an expanding network of pro-Trump sites seeking to influence local politics with conservative opinion by mimicking the look and feel of local newspapers — and they've echoed former President Trump's false election fraud claims. https://t.co/XREz8eYuO9
— NPR Politics (@nprpolitics) July 2, 2021
Jenny Beth Martin, founder of Tea Party Patriots Action, took exception to the NPR tweet.
“The Star News Network is not ‘mimicking’ anything. They are doing real reporting and are the evolution of local and regional newspapers,” Martin told The Star News Network.
The Nashville-based Star News Network owns and operates eight state news sites, The Georgia Star News, The Ohio Star, The Tennessee Star, The Michigan Star, The Minnesota Sun, The Virginia Star, The Florida Capital Star, and The Arizona Sun Times, as well as The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy radio program.
The headline of Fowler’s NPR article includes the false claim that the eight Star News Network sites “keep pushing 2020 Election Misinformation.”
The NPR article elaborated on that false claim in these three paragraphs:
So there was a ready-made audience when the Georgia Star published a misleading story mid-June questioning the legitimacy of nearly 20,000 absentee ballots placed in Georgia drop boxes — slightly more than the margin of Biden’s victory there.
The story said that Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, could not produce crucial chain of custody documentation for ballots returned in drop boxes, suggesting that the ballots may not have been legitimate.
The “mid-June” story the NPR article referred to, “Fulton County Election Official Admits Chain of Custody Documents Missing for 2020 Absentee Ballots Deposited in Drop Boxes,” was published by The Georgia Star News on June 14. It stated the following facts:
In a stunning admission about the critical chain of custody documents for absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes in the November 3, 2020 election, a Fulton County election official told The Georgia Star News on Wednesday that “a few forms are missing” and that “some procedural paperwork may have been misplaced.”
A Star News analysis of drop box ballot transfer forms for absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes provided by Fulton County in response to an Open Records Request showed that 385 transfer forms out of an estimated 1,565 transfer forms Fulton County said should have been provided are missing – a number that is significantly greater than “a few” by any objective standard.
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.
- The total number of absentee ballots whose chain of custody was purportedly documented in these 385 missing Fulton County absentee ballot transfer forms was 18,901, more than 6,000 votes greater than the less than 12,000 vote margin of Biden’s certified victory in the state.
- Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has taken no action in 156 of Georgia’s 159 counties to secure copies of any absentee ballot drop box transfer forms and review them for accuracy and consistency with reported absentee ballot vote counts. In April his office announced investigations into three small counties that “failed to do their absentee ballot transfer forms” in the November 2020 election in compliance with rules and regulations.
- More than seven months after the November 3 election, 28 Georgia counties have failed to respond at all to The Star News Open Records Requests to produce absentee ballot drop box transfer forms. To date, The Star News has obtained absentee ballot drop box forms from 59 counties that provide chain of custody documentation for 266,492 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes during the November 3, 2020 election, which means that no chain of custody documentation has been produced for about 333,000 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes out of an estimated 600,000 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes during that election.
The July 2 NPR article also falsely claimed that the June 14 Star News article “suggest[ed] that the ballots may not have been legitimate.” The June 14 Star News article instead stated, “The admission of missing chain of custody documents by a Fulton County official is important for several reasons that cut to the very core of public confidence in the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.”
The July 2 NPR article went on to say that “Days later, county officials were able to find all but eight of those forms, said all the ballots were accounted for – and noted that Georgia’s votes were counted three different times in November.”
However, Fowler’s claim in his July 2 NPR article that Fulton County officials were able to find all but eight of the forms is contradicted in his June 23 story for Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) , which indicated that a total of at least 54 transfer forms were missing. These 54 missing transfer forms are supposed to provide the chain of custody documentation for just under 1,100 absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes.
These 54 missing transfer forms in Fulton County represents three percent of the 1,549 transfer forms Fowler says he received from Fulton County in his June 23 GPB story:
The county is also missing missing records for eight individual drop boxes across three days: five from Oct. 15, two from Oct. 17 and one from Oct. 21.
For at least 46 drop box entries totaling just under 1,100 ballots, the county has internal records of the total number of ballots collected but did not provide the associated form.
The second claim that all of the ballots were accounted for was not substantiated in the link that Fowler included.
The third claim that Georgia’s votes were counted three different times is separate from the issue of chain of custody.
The July 2 NPR article also falsely claimed, “The Georgia Star hasn’t updated its original story, or several follow-up pieces, with Fulton County’s release of the data.” [Note: The article incorrectly referred to The Georgia Star News as “The Georgia Star.“]
In fact, The Georgia Star News has published eight subsequent stories that track the progress of the Fulton County absentee ballot drop box chain of custody story, which can be seen below:
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Monday that a thorough investigation will be conducted of Fulton County’s inability to produce the critical chain of custody documents for absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes during the November 3, 2020 election.
Raffensperger made his announcement via Twitter, following the lead story Monday in The Georgia Star News that a Fulton County election official admitted that chain of custody documents are missing for absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes in the 2020 election.
Georgia Public Broadcasting News, part of the taxpayer-funded network of state PBS television stations and NPR radio stations, reported Wednesday, June 16, 2021, that they received from Fulton County all but eight of the 385 missing absentee ballot drop box transfer forms The Georgia Star News has reported on.
After six months and several open records requests, 385 of the transfer forms that document the chain of custody of absentee ballots deposited in drop boxes and transferred to the county registrar during the November 3, 2020, election have still not been provided to The Star News.
A tweet by Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) News writer Stephen Fowler on Saturday revealed more chain of custody document discrepancies in Fulton County’s absentee ballot drop box transfer forms.
The tweet included a partial image – the very top only — of two transfer forms Fowler claims were part of an open records response GPB News received on Wednesday from Fulton County election officials.
Fulton County elections officials have failed to provide complete absentee ballot drop box transfer forms to The Georgia Star News that they provided to Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) News last week.
The Star News broke the news on Monday, June 14, that a Fulton County elections official admitted that “a few forms are missing” and that during a COVID outbreak at the Elections Preparation Center (EPC) “some procedural paperwork may have been misplaced,” with regard to 385 drop box transfer forms The Star News is still missing from 1,565 transfer forms Fulton County documented on a spreadsheet that tracked daily absentee ballot collections during the November 2020 election.
Seven months after the November 3, 2020 presidential election, state and county officials in Georgia have failed to produce chain of custody records for more than 317,000 absentee vote by mail ballots deposited in drop boxes located around the state for that election.
A preliminary analysis by The Georgia Star News of Fulton County drop box transfer forms covering five days in October 2020 that were previously missing reveals that 68 percent lack a recording of the time the absentee ballots were received by the registrar or designee which documents the ballot chain of custody.
Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) News published a report on the transfer forms that they said they received from Fulton County on June 15.
In a story this week, The Washington Post referred to Fulton County’s record-keeping of the chain of custody documentation of the absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes during the November 3, 2020, election “shoddy” and “sloppy.”
While the apparent goal of the story was to deliver “Four Pinocchios” to former President Donald Trump for what The Post called “baseless claims about ballot drop boxes in Fulton County, Ga,” it made arguments supporting claims of election irregularities.
An interview between The Georgia Star News and Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) News revealed that they had received Fulton County’s drop box absentee ballot transfer forms from the Secretary of State’s office in April. GPB News, however, did not report on their findings until after The Star News report in June.
Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) News requested an interview with John Fredericks, which also included Laura Baigert, of The Georgia Star News, as part of his fact-check for a story and to get comments from everyone involved.
Fowler also ignores in his July 2 NPR article facts clearly visible from public records and overlooks his own past reporting on the drop box absentee ballot transfer forms that Fulton County election officials have still failed to produce, even to GPB.
During a 20-minute interview with The Georgia Star News and The Star News Network, on Wednesday, the full transcript of which can be read here, Fowler admitted that he also didn’t receive all of the drop box transfer forms for absentee ballots from Fulton County election officials or the Secretary of State’s office. The result is that GPB News is still missing about three percent of Fulton County’s chain of custody documents.
Fowler revealed, among other things, that it was Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office that provided him with the bulk of Fulton County’s chain of custody documents as far back as late April. Fowler said he didn’t do anything with documents at the time, only starting the tabulation of the data after a breaking news story was published by The Star News on June 14. Fowler said he received the remainder of the transfer forms from Fulton County the morning of June 17.
Meanwhile, Raffensperger spokesman told The Star News in April that they did not have the chain of custody documents, they only confirmed with the relevant counties that they had them. Raffensperger has since said that Fulton County’s missing chain of custody documents will be investigated and that he wants Fulton County’s elections to be taken over by the state.
In addition to admitting that, he too, is still missing transfer forms, Fowler’s June 23 report cites other issues with Fulton County election officials’ reporting.
Fowler states that “Fulton County has records for 78,863 ballots deposited in 38 drop boxes over a span of 41 days.” (emphasis added)
He later states that the GPB News analysis counted 78,513 ballots – that’s a different of 350 absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes, reflecting a 0.4 percent difference in ballot count. (emphasis added)
Of course, neither of these ballot counts are the same as what Fulton County reported on their daily count spreadsheet, which totaled 79,460. (emphasis added)
As The Star News reported previously, however, the Fulton County daily count spreadsheet included an illogical configuration of a formula that resulted in double counting the number of absentee ballots collected from drop boxes installed at the Auburn Avenue Research Library and the North Training Center totaling 4,011 ballots. The correct total should have been 75,449 instead of the recorded 79,460.
Although, as both The Star News and GPB News have pointed out, there are numerous errors in the daily count spreadsheet.
The Star News reported that at least 190 times the Fulton County daily spreadsheet record of absentee ballots collected from drop boxes differed from the ballot count on the actual transfer forms. The variances in the number of absentee ballots recorded on the spreadsheet being 1,700 less than what was recorded on the transfer forms.
The variances in the count absentee ballots recorded on the transfer forms and reported on the Fulton County daily count spreadsheet were due to both typographical errors and changes written on the transfer forms after the absentee ballot count was entered on the daily count spreadsheet.
In his June 23 article, Fowler reported, “The GPB review also found at least 21 entries [on Fulton County’s daily count spreadsheet] that have different numbers than the actual forms, or transposed entries from adjacent days or drop boxes.”
Fowler himself was the first to reveal chain of custody discrepancies with Fulton County’s absentee ballot transfer forms for two box collections on October 11.
In a June 18 tweet, Fowler included a partial image of two drop box transfer from October 11 that Fowler said he received as part of the open records response for missing documents from Fulton County.
The problem the image revealed is that the absentee ballot count on the forms Fowler tweeted doesn’t match Fulton County’s daily count spreadsheet.
Fowler’s tweeted image shows a combined total of 36 absentee ballots collected from the Metropolitan Library and Cleveland Avenue Library drop boxes on October 11, while Fulton County’s official spreadsheet showed only 15 total absentee ballots collected from those two drop boxes on that day – a discrepancy of 21 ballots for that one day and those two drop boxes alone.
None of these factual observations, however, address other more problematic findings with the absentee ballot drop box transfer forms. As of June 13, all of the absentee ballot drop box transfer forms received by The Star News from Fulton County could be viewed here.
The purpose of the drop box transfer forms is to ensure that the chain of custody of the absentee ballots is maintained.
To that end, the State Election Board Emergency Rule 183-1-14-0.8-.14 promulgated in July 2020 established specific requirements for the chain of custody documentation on the transfer forms.
Emergency Rule required information includes the date and time of the drop box collection, as well as the printed names and signatures of the two-person collection team, the number of absentee ballots collected, the name and signature of the registrar or designee and the time at which the absentee ballots were surrendered after being “immediately transported” from the drop box.
Any deviations from the stated requirements constitutes a violation of the Emergency Rule and represents a break in the chain of custody.
The Star News analysis of more than 21,000 pieces of data from more than 1,110 transfer forms received from Fulton County revealed the following partial list of deficiencies:
- The collection time of absentee ballots from drop boxes is missing from 37 transfer forms
- Drop box collection team member #1 printed name is missing from 14 transfer forms
- Drop box collection team member #1 printed name is missing from 39 transfer forms
- The printed name of the registrar/designee the drop box absentee ballots were surrendered to is missing from 337 transfer forms
- The time that the drop box absentee ballots were surrendered to the registrar or designee is missing from 341 transfer forms
Using one hour as a very generous standard for the absentee ballots to be “immediately transported” from a drop box to the registrar or designee, 85 percent of the 59,000 absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes during the November 2020 election and analyzed by The Star News did not meet the standard.
In fact, five percent of the absentee ballots were recorded as being delivered before they were collected from the drop box by the two-person team. (emphasis added)
Analysis of the transfer forms that GPB News received from Fulton County by The Star News – which included those from October 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 20, five days for which The Star News received no documents from Fulton County – revealed that 68 percent of those transfer forms lacked the time the registrar or designee received the drop box absentee ballots that documents the chain of custody.
There were a number of other issues with the chain of custody documents GPB News says it received from Fulton County on June 17–documents that The Star News has still not received from Fulton County as of close business on July 2, which are detailed in this report.
One unresolved issue is the provenance of the newly-discovered-by-GPB transfer forms that are displayed in the June 17 GPB article. It is unclear if GPB claims that all of those transfer forms were included in the thumb drive GPB received from Fulton County on the morning of June 17, or if some of those transfer forms were provided to GPB by the Secretary of State’s office in April.
Fowler said that during the interview, The Star News author, Baigert, “blamed the county for providing incomplete documents and information.”
As Baigert pointed out to Fowler in the interview about Fulton County election officials, “They’re the experts on what they have and what they don’t have, right? We don’t know what they have. You don’t know what they have.”
With 24 percent of the absentee ballot drop box chain of custody not provided to The Star News at the time of the story about the election official’s admission, Baigert told Fowler, “If they can’t tell us how many forms they have and how many ballots they have, that’s an issue for people who are administering an election.”
“That’s not our problem to solve that for them.”
For perspective, election officials were responsible for the administration of 146,994 absentee votes, or 28 percent of the 524,659 total votes cast for president in Fulton County during the November 2020 election, according to its website.
Meanwhile, Fulton County election officials had to complete and store just 1,500 to 1,600 transfer forms – or about one percent of the number of absentee ballots – to ensure the critical chain of custody of about half of the absentee ballots deposited into drop boxes during that election.
While Fowler paints a colorful picture of a “pro-Trump media ecosystem,” which by its very nature implies that GPB News is either anti-Trump or pro-Biden, he cites no specific examples of errors in The Star News reporting.
During Wednesday’s interview, Fowler did, however, question Fredericks as to The Georgia Star News’s business model customary to publishers of selling advertising in order to fund the privately-owned member of The Star News Network family of digital newspapers.
Fredericks contrasted the capitalistic funding model of The Star News Network selling advertising to that of Fowler’s taxpayer-funded employer, GPB News.
“Everything we do is profitable because we sell legitimate advertising to fund our operation, not like Georgia Public Broadcasting, which is taxpayer-funded by the hard-working men and women of Georgia.”
Read the full transcript of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Stephen Fowler’s report that aired on NPR July 2, 2021 here:
Announcer: What sustains former President Trump’s lies that he won the 2020 election while in several key states? It’s a growing media network that is creating an alternate reality for some Republican voters and politicians. Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Stephen Fowler takes a look at one outlet.
Fowler: If you don’t follow politics in Georgia closely, or even if you do, you might be forgiven for not knowing much about the Georgia Star News. Founded just after the November election, it looks like a regular news site. There’s a lifestyle section, a widget for the weather, and stories about local and National goings-on.
But there’s more going on it, says Steve Bannon, former Trump strategist describing the outlet’s focus in a radio interview. This content, you can’t get anywhere else. We’re not conservative, Inc. It’s very populous. It’s very nationalist. It’s very Margaret’s, very American.
It’s First, it’s part of an expanding network of sites seeking to influence local politics with a conservative opinion by mimicking the look and feel of local newspapers. These, in turn, are part of a larger, pro-Trump media ecosystem. Some of those sites have spent months turning out false content, suggesting Trump won last November.
Many of the sites have been around for a while, but the 2020 election and an intense focus on battleground states like Georgia have helped their stories really take off. Georgia’s fledgling website gets a boost from publisher John Frederick’s radio show that has featured numerous figures from Trump’s orbit, plus influential Republican politicians in Georgia pushing false claims of fraud or challenging those who didn’t overturn the election.
(Fredericks clip plays)
Republican Party Chairman of Georgia, David Schaefer, State Senator Brandon each one is running for governor in Georgia, Congressman Putty Cotter.
Fowler: So there was a ready-made audience when The Georgia Star published a story mid-June questioning the legitimacy of near 20,000 absentee ballots placed in Georgia drop boxes willing to spread something that would ordinarily be a blip on the radar.
First, The Georgia Star website ran a story that said Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, could not produce crucial chain of custody documentation for ballots returned in drop boxes. The story seemed to question the validity of President Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the state.
Days later, county officials were able to find all but eight of those forms, said all the ballots were accounted for and noted that Georgia’s election was counted three different times in November. But in the conservative alternate media sphere, the story began to pick up steam. Fredericks had Steve Bannon on his radio show to discuss the breaking news.
(Bannon clip plays)
This Georgia Star story this morning, unless I’m not reading it correctly, and I think they’ve actually buried the lead, it’s the most explosive thing. I think it’s happened in this entire process.
Fowler: From there, it ricocheted across the pro-Trump media sphere to TV networks like One America News.
(OANN clip plays)
But we begin tonight with breaking news out of Fulton County.
Fowler: And getting aggregated by sites like The Gateway Pundit that regularly trafficked in Conspiracies and misinformation. But the story was not limited to the fringe of Republican politics. Several pro-Trump lawmakers and primary challengers demanded an investigation into what happened.
So did Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, himself a frequent target of misinformation and attacks from these sites. that led mainstream outlets to run, with Raffensberger’s response pushing the story further into the spotlight.
Even though the County has found the forms, the Georgia Star hasn’t updated its story because it says it still hasn’t received that data from elections officials. Just a few days after the original story, Trump issued several statements and linked to a One America News segment about the misleading story.
(OANN clips plays)
How in the world can you be missing chain of custody documents for one out of four absentee ballots in Fulton County.
Fowler: And praising the writer by name for ‘the incredible reporting you have done.’ Meanwhile, the story breathed new life into Trump’s false claims, which he repeated at a Saturday rally in Ohio.
(Trump clip plays)
The biggest tragedy of all is millions of Americans have lost confidence in their vote. We can’t let that happen.
Fowler: In an interview, publisher Fredericks says The Georgia Star has a growing audience of people that want an outlet that tells the truth, gets the facts, and can ‘punch through the fake news networks.’ And he says the site is profitable thanks to a large number of ads from Republican politicians and groups.
(Fredricks clip plays)
And if somebody needs to reach informed, motivated readers that want the truth, advertising with us is a great opportunity for them. It is a great ROI potential.
Fowler: After last week’s rally, the Star News Network snagged an exclusive half-hour interview with Trump and All Caps headlined the next day touted the conversation and its takeaway. There is no more important issue than the 2020 election, Trump said. For NPR News, I’m Stephen Fowler in Atlanta.
– – –
Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Star News Network and The Georgia Star News.
Photo “Stephen Fowler” by Georgia PBS.