By Rebecca Gaunt
In an election cycle fraught with problems for Cobb County, Madelyn Orochena had already started preparing to be sworn in Monday as the new Post 1 Kennesaw City Council member when she received a call telling her there was a mistake.
Janine Eveler, director of Cobb elections, told her that a memory card from one of the voting locations had not been uploaded. The previously certified results, showing Orochena as the victor of the seven-candidate special election, were wrong. Second-place finisher Lynette Burnette had actually won.
Orochena had already waited a week to announce her win due to the slim margin of victory and the fact that there were outstanding ballots to be counted. The due date for absentee ballots was Nov. 14.
Orochena was originally certified as the winner with 16 votes separating her and Burnette. Burnette has now been certified as the winner by 31 votes.
“[Eveler] said she was sorry to report some bad news and that ‘one memory card from the Kennesaw 3A precinct was not uploaded properly and failed to report on election night through certification. Today as we prepared reports for the statewide Risk Limiting Audit, we discovered that only ballot images were present in the system and not ballot results,’” Orochena wrote to the Courier.
Since there wasn’t a requirement to receive a particular percentage of the vote, the win goes to the candidate who receives the most. The updated results indicate Burnette received 1,756 (18.27%) votes to Orochena’s 1,725 (17.95%)
Jason Acree was next with 1,320 votes (13.74%). Followed by Anthony Gutierrez with 1,315 (13.69%), David Blinkhorn with 1,277 (13.29%), Daniel Bowie with 1,184 (12.32%), and Jon Fred Bothers with 1,032 (10.74%).
TheCobb Board of Elections met Friday to certify the new results. It also granted Orochena’s request for a recount with the intention to notify all candidates immediately after the meeting concluded.
According to Eveler, there was a change in Cobb’s usual procedure this year due to the audit legally required by Senate Bill 202, the Georgia voting law passed in 2021. That change factored into the delay catching the memory card error.
“We were told before the audit not to count the ballots because we had to show the original seal before we brought the ballots out for the audit,” Eveler said. In the past, the ballots would have been counted right the night of the election.
The memory card was returned in the sealed pouch on the night of the election, but the results were not uploaded due to human error.
Orochena addressed the board members and Eveler at the meeting. She expressed her frustration about the 45-minute delay opening the 3A precinct and that a long line at the end of the day resulted in voters walking out without casting a ballot.
“This is unacceptable and therefore should not be accepted. Apologies, however sincere, are not good enough. Promises about next time are not good enough. My community deserves better. Our rights have been infringed. Our democratic process has been broken, and you have the responsibility to make sure that this election and every election is fair, free, and trustworthy. That is your duty. Kennesaw already suffers a painfully low voter turnout. I fear this Board of Elections has only served to worsen the problem. I am sad for my community and for so many voters who did not feel that their rights were protected,” she said, reading from a prepared statement.
Eveler said the poll manager at precinct 3A was new and a trainer was sent out to help, but she acknowledged it took longer than it should have to get everyone in line through the voting process.
Orochena filed a complaint with the state and reached out to legal counsel.
Cobb Elections Board Chair Tori Silas said there will be a full root cause analysis of the problems. No staff members have been disciplined to her knowledge.
Burnette appears to have stayed off the mainstream radar for the duration of the campaign, which has many locals asking who she is and how she won. “Who is Lynette Burnette?” one Reddit user posted, echoing similar queries on social media.
On her campaign Facebook page, Orochena wrote, “As for Ms. Burnette, I, nor any of the other candidates whom I’ve spoken to, know anything about her. She didn’t attend city council meetings. She listed no contact information in her qualifying papers. To my knowledge she did not respond to any local media and candidate questionnaires. She did not participate in the Q&A or the local meet and greet with the rest of the candidates. I am unaware of any campaign website or platform.”
The Courier has not been successful reaching out to Burnette, but the Marietta Daily Journal spoke to her after the election. Burnette said she was not available for an interview about her platform or the issues.
Bumpy road to the election
The 2022 election cycle has not gone smoothly for Cobb County.
As previously reported, last February, Eveler wrote to Deputy County Manager Jimmy Gisi that she was concerned about the Cobb elections office meeting the secretary of state’s Feb. 18 deadline to complete redistricting. There was a special election for House District 45, taking place under the old district lines. She requested the cityhood referendums, which also required special ballots within the proposed city boundaries, not take place until November. Despite the severe staffing turnover she cited in the letter, her request was not granted. Nor was her request to delay the primary until June.
During the Lost Mountain and East Cobb cityhood referendums in May, voters reported receiving ballots without the question on the ballot. The same occurred for the Mableton cityhood referendum in November.
Redistricting errors were reported by voters with regard to the school board Post 2 and Post 4 elections. Another error resulted in more than 1,000 absentee ballots not being mailed out. Cobb County Superior Court Judge Kellie Hill signed a consent order to send by overnight delivery absentee ballots to the remaining voters who were not sent ballots due to a clerical error by a staff member.
Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.