Opinion: Cathy Cox on the gap between state election officials and an army of poll workers

06/10/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Fulton County employees continue to count mail-in ballots the day after the Georgia primary election at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. A spokesperson for Fulton County said that they will announce the final number of mail-in ballots on Wednesday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

06/10/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Fulton County employees continue to count mail-in ballots the day after the Georgia primary election at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. A spokesperson for Fulton County said that they will announce the final number of mail-in ballots on Wednesday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Traditionally, election nights are an opened fire hydrant, gushing data faster than any one person can drink in.

But Tuesday night produced only a trickle of statistics. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had vowed not to post any numbers on his website until the last precinct in the state closed.

Lines of frustrated voters told me that trigger was still hours and hours away from being pulled. And so I drifted into a Facebook Live chat put up by the Georgia WIN List, a group dedicated to helping mostly Democratic women get elected.

The featured speaker was Cathy Cox, who as secretary of state in 2002 was responsible for firing up the state’s first generation of touch-screen voting machines. As I watched, Cox offered up a real-time diagnosis of what was going wrong at polling places across metro Atlanta and beyond.

She described a vast gulf that had been exposed by the debut of this next generation of voting machines. The state elected official tasked with purchasing them was on one side. On the other were the thousands of temporary poll workers in charge of putting them to use.

“A lot of the stories I hear today do seem to fall right on the poll worker’s experience,” Cox said. “But that’s something that should have started at the state level.”

She said more, but that will wait.

Much finger-pointing has gone on since Tuesday. Vows of investigations to get to the bottom of things have peppered the airwaves. Raffensperger’s office has accused specific counties – DeKalb and Fulton – of malfeasance. Those counties have returned the accusation with gusto. And have pointed out that perhaps 20 counties reported operational problems on Election Day.

But if a diagnosis and a solution to Tuesday’s debacle is to be reached by Aug. 11, when primary runoffs are scheduled, or the general election on Nov. 3, then everyone will have to step away from their corners.

For once, let’s put the pandemic to good use and make it an excuse to declare a mulligan. A do-over. A reason to start over and do it right. Don’t blame, just fix.

The first thing to realize is that we may have a contradiction between state law and common sense.

Gabriel Sterling is the secretary of state staffer who was in charge of distributing the new machines to counties across the state. As complaints piled up on Tuesday, he wrote a memo that emphasized a division of labor and responsibility.

“[T]raining poll workers and equipping polling places is a responsibility that Georgia law places squarely on the county,” Sterling wrote, citing the proper state code section. “The Secretary of State’s office is tasked with providing training to the superintendents, who then train their poll workers and county election officials. The fact that the egregious issues we are seeing today seem to be limited to a few precincts in a couple counties suggests that the breakdown occurred at the county level.”

I’m going to assume that Sterling has his legal ducks in a row. Even so, it is entirely possible that the letter of the law is not up to the task at hand. With or without a pandemic.

040105 - ATLANTA, GA -- Secretary of State Cathy Cox (cq) talks about Gerogia's new touch-screen voting machines, one of which is seen at right. (BEN GRAY/AJC staff)

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Which brings us back to Cathy Cox, who is now the dean of the Mercer University School of Law. While Sterling cited state law, Cox pointed to Bush v. Gore, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made George W. Bush the winner of the 2000 presidential election -- and strongly implied that the Constitution’s equal protection clause required jurisdiction-wide uniformity in the conduct of elections.

That decision is why the state shifted to a single system of voting machines 18 years ago, escaping a patchwork of systems that changed county by county.

That uniformity is important.

“With the variances we have between Georgia counties – we have 159 different levels of expertise, 159 different levels of resources on the county level,” she said Tuesday night. “And these counties – they don’t have the expertise to do the training on brand new equipment. There’s no one really but the secretary of state’s office that can be responsible for that kind of consistent training across the state.”

The next day, Cox emailed over a few press releases from 2002 that an ex-aide had dug up, detailing the prep work that she and her staff had done leading up to a first vote. Maybe Raffensperger has tried to do the same – but that would have been hard in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic.

As part of its contract with the state, Diebold, the machine manufacturer, committed to train at least two workers in each of 2,925 precincts. Each mandatory session lasted at least 150 minutes. Poll workers received $100 each for their time. Three thousand video tapes were distributed to train more.

Some 550 company and state workers fanned out across the state on Election Day. Anticipating clogged phone lines, each worker was equipped with a radio identical to ones stationed in his or her assigned counties – to deal with problems ranging from lost extension cords to dead batteries.

According to my AJC colleague Mark Niesse, the state had 175 tech support staffers across the state last Tuesday. They were quickly overwhelmed. Poll workers said they had trouble encoding voter access cards, logging into tablets and starting up voting computers.

But like we said, as far as blame is concerned, this is a Blake Edwards pie fight.

On Thursday, election chief Richard Barron told the Fulton County election board that 10 precincts opened late on Tuesday, caused mostly by staff unable to work brand new voting machines, according to the AJC's Ben Brasch.

First-time Fulton poll worker Vanessa Kelly said she completed video training over the weekend after answering the county’s emergency callout to hire 250 extra workers. She didn’t get her assignment until 10:30 p.m. Monday.

There are solvable wrinkles to work on. We do not yet know why the lines of voters we saw on television Tuesday included many, many people of color. The turnout rate in Republican neighborhoods may have been lighter than in Democratic ones. The data isn’t in, but when it arrives, we’ll know how to fix that.

If you were an elderly poll worker who gave this Tuesday a pass out of fear of contracting the cornavirus, you had good reason. Especially if you are African American. The data is clear on that. That can be fixed, too.

Also, a statewide absentee ballot operation needs to be ramped up, not down.

“Somebody’s got to sit down and do the logistical exercises. Does that mean the counties need more scanners to county those absentee ballots?” Cox asked. “Do the counties need more money to hire minimum-wage high school and college kids to open those envelopes faster?

“It’s not that hard. It just involves bringing election officials to the table instead of pointing fingers at them – bringing everyone with knowledge to the table to make it right.”

But let’s mark the big thing that needs to be discussed. When she launched those first voting machines in 2002, Cox wrapped her arms around the 6,000 poll workers who pulled off that election. Raffensperger has kept them at arm’s length.

“It is clear that some counties continue to not perform. It is the responsibility of the counties to properly deliver and install equipment. It is the responsibility of the counties to properly train its poll workers,” the current secretary of state said.

On Wednesday, Raffensperger said he wants state lawmakers to give him “greater authority to directly intervene and require management changes” when county election offices aren’t performing up to snuff – and to require counties to pay for that help.

But Cox had a solid reason for choosing soft, detailed power over hard lines of responsibility. It may be the main difference between the debut of the 2002 machines and the election we just completed.

That year, Cathy Cox’s name was on the ballot. She was up for re-election as secretary of state. And she wouldn’t get the vote of anyone who stood in line for five hours. “It does make a difference when your neck is on the line,” Cox said.

A Democratic governor lost that November. So did a U.S. senator, also a Democrat. And a House speaker, yet another Democrat. But Cox was re-elected.

The current crop of state constitutional officers won’t be up for re-election for another two years. But the entirety of the state Legislature will be.

That’s something to keep in mind as we barrel toward Nov. 3.