To understand the angry stew that was Georgia on Tuesday – bubbling with frustrated voters, undelivered absentee ballots and pointed fingers – you must consider that, in many ways, this was the day after Nov. 6, 2018.
Yes, the pandemic killed a March dry run for a new generation of touchscreen voting machines — an opportunity to identify and fix logistical bugs. COVID-19 also kept at home an army of elderly poll workers who were to have been trained on those machines.
And indeed, a necessary shift to absentee voting complicated the work of 159 county election offices — and brought tens of thousands of new voters into a primary process that has traditionally catered to hardcore Republican and Democratic activists.
According to Ryan Anderson, who operates the data tabulation website GeorgiaVotes.com, 62% of voters who cast in-person and absentee ballots as of last Friday didn't participate in 2016 primaries.
New voters are often angry voters. They make incumbents nervous.
But by far, the biggest contributor to the heated electoral climate was the fact that Tuesday’s balloting was a lawyered-up sequel to the 2018 contest in which Republican Brian Kemp beat Democrat Stacey Abrams by 54,723 votes out of nearly 4 million cast.
Needless to say, as secretary of state, Kemp was also in charge of that election.
The June 9 primary was the first statewide election since Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group set up by Abrams, filed a massive, top-to-bottom challenge to Georgia’s voting system in federal court.
The case has yet to go to trial. But new facts about the election are coming out every day.
On Nov. 4, 2018, two days before the 2018 election for Georgia governor, Kemp used his authority as secretary of state to open an investigation into what he called a “failed hacking attempt” of voter registration systems involving the Democratic Party of Georgia.
Just a few days ago, the Journal-Constitution and ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom specializing in investigative journalism, finished going through 395 pages of GBI case files generated by the investigation and finally made public.
There was no hacking attempt. Kemp’s office mistook planned security tests and a warning about potential election security holes for malicious hacking – and wrongly accused his political foes on the Sunday before voting ended.
At some point, that story could be told in front of a judge. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had no part in the misadventure. But he is Kemp’s successor as the state’s top election official, and you can understand why he might think himself on the legal defensive.
That would help explain Raffensperger’s unusual announcement that his office would not post any returns — for any race across the state – until every single vote had been cast on Tuesday. The time needed to count large numbers of absentee ballots could further delay results to Wednesday. Or beyond. That’s a secretary of state anticipating a last-minute legal challenge.
Likewise, Fair Fight Action was lining up its ducks as the polls opened on Tuesday. At 8 a.m. or so, spokesman Seth Bringman pointed reporters to polling locations in Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb that failed to open on time.
Ninety minutes later, Bringman sent out a single-spaced “sampling” of 128 links to Twitter and Facebook posts by voters reporting polling problems. Including one from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Throughout the day, both sides sought the high ground in an electoral voting system that seems designed for blame-shifting. The secretary of state may issue voting guidelines, but counties are responsible for implementation. And in many cases, that means absorbing the costs.
In a Twitter thread listing problems caused by "long lines, malfunctioning machines, inadequate resources and training," Fair Fight Action CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo noted that her group "has the state in federal court on these issues and [with] our allies will analyze the primary meltdown in the coming days."
Meanwhile, Gabriel Sterling, a former member of the Sandy Springs City Council and Raffensperger staffer in charge of the statewide implementation of the voting machines, denied any hardware or software failure.
“We have reports of poll workers not understanding setup or how to operate voting equipment. While these are unfortunate, they are not issues of the equipment, but a function of counties engaging in poor planning, limited training, and failures of leadership,” he said in a statement.
Sterling didn’t mention the Fulton County election office by name, but that office did make an emergency plea for 250 poll workers over the weekend. The secretary of state’s office was already looking at Fulton County’s handling of absentee ballot applications.
But this isn’t just a two-sided fight. Also Tuesday afternoon, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, ordered a legislative probe into the conduct of Tuesday’s primary.
“We are hearing anecdotes from around the state – particularly in Fulton County – this morning of unacceptable deficiencies: Poll workers not being properly trained, voting equipment not working and absentee ballots not being received among other issues,” Ralston said in a statement. “Our poll workers give of their time to serve Georgians, and they do not deserve to be blamed for systemic problems beyond their control.”
The above is not a statement friendly to Secretary of State Raffensperger, a fellow Republican. Which brings us back to something we mentioned earlier — angst over an influx of new voters in Tuesday’s primaries.
You’ll recall that the House speaker was an early critic of Raffensperger’s decision to emphasize absentee voting during the pandemic.
Initially, Ralston said he agreed with a statement from President Donald Trump, who said this of Democratic efforts to establish vote-by-mail systems: “They had things, levels of voting that if you ever agreed to, you would never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
The House speaker quickly amended his remarks, saying he was concerned with voter fraud.
But as I was preparing for Tuesday’s vote, I rang up Mark Rountree, president of Landmark Communications, a firm that does both polling and political consulting. Mostly for GOP campaigns.
At my request, Rountree took a look at the record 1.2 million ballots that had already been cast by Friday, whether in-person or by mail. Among Republican voters, 26.4% had not voted in a primary in 2016 or 2018
Among Democratic voters, 45.4% had not voted in a primary in 2016 or 2018. So Ralston and other Republicans are right to be worried. They need to know who these people are. Democrats need to know, too.
“New voters being brought into the process are not usually being brought in by incumbents. They’re usually brought in by challengers, or issues. This is not indicative of the presidential race. That’s not the driver,” he said. “It’s dissatisfaction with incumbents.”
Remember that Tuesday’s primary votes were Democrat-on-Democrat, Republican-on-Republican. New voters present risks for incumbents on both sides.
So as the sun creeps up this Wednesday morning, if nearly half of Democratic voters in fact were new to this voting business, several Democratic office-holders could find themselves in trouble.
But today is also the beginning of a general election season. A voter who casts a ballot in June is more likely to do it again on or before Nov. 3. Which means the injection of tens of thousands of new and unfamiliar voters should make Georgia Republicans more than a little nervous.