‘Alarming disparities’ in voting wait times, DeKalb commissioners say

201012-Decatur- Denise and Bill Hasbune, of Stone Mountain, fill out a pre-registration form while waiting in line to vote Monday morning October 12, 2020 at the DeKalb County elections office in Decatur. The Hasbunes arrived before 6AM because they said they wanted to be sure to exercise their right to vote and didn’t want to take a chance of missing the opportunity. Several hundred people were in line when early voting started at 7AM. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

A trio of DeKalb commissioners are asking local election officials to explain — and address — disparate wait times at early voting sites in different parts of the county.

Those officials, meanwhile, said they aren’t sure such disparities even exist.

Commissioners Larry Johnson, Mereda Davis Johnson and Lorraine Cochran-Johnson sent a joint letter Thursday to county elections director Erica Hamilton and elections board chairman Sam Tillman. The letter said that voters in the predominantly Black areas of south and east DeKalb had reported waiting four or five hours to cast their ballots this week, “while north DeKalb voters are able to vote within an hour.”

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The commissioners, who allocate funding for elections but have no direct oversight, acknowledged that bandwidth issues with the state’s check-in system have been generally to blame for lengthy waits at polls across metro Atlanta. But they said that doesn’t explain the apparent disparity between different regions of DeKalb, when most of the county’s dozen early voting sites have had similar numbers of voters show up.

“As concerned citizens and elected officials, we are dismayed by what we are seeing and seek immediate corrective action and answers for this disturbing pattern,” the commissioners wrote.

The letter came a day after elections board member Dele Lowman Smith broached the same subject during an elections board meeting, saying she didn’t understand “why there would be disparate outcomes in the south portion of the county, when everybody has the same equipment, everybody has the same training, everybody has voting machines.”

DeKalb Democrats chairman John Jackson also referenced the situation earlier in the week when he called for Hamilton, the elections director, and Tillman, the elections board chair, to resign.

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But in a statement released through a spokeswoman late Thursday, Hamilton said the county has closely monitored polling locations and was “not able to verify claims of wait times at lengths of four to five hours in DeKalb County." She said the county will, nevertheless, be “reconfiguring” an early voting site at South DeKalb Mall this weekend in order to “improve traffic flow and accommodate larger volumes of voters.”

“We are committed to the voters of DeKalb County and will continue to monitor wait times throughout the early voting period,” Hamilton’s statement said.

The commissioners' letter is just the latest manifestation of long-standing tensions with local elections officials. Commissioners have raised concerns about elections leaders being slow to adapt and reluctant to accept outside help, and have questioned whether the county is prepared to run a smooth Nov. 3 election.

Commissioners planned to hold a special-called committee meeting Friday morning to discuss elections issues, but it was delayed until 1 p.m. Monday. The county’s attorney said the notice for the meeting was not given 24 hours in advance due to technical difficulties, so the meeting would have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.

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