Fulton quickly implemented lessons from June election debacle, emails show

A system specialist for the Fulton County department of registration and elections [name withheld] inspects each voting machine on the floor at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A system specialist for the Fulton County department of registration and elections [name withheld] inspects each voting machine on the floor at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Fulton County’s first sign of trouble on Election Day in the June primary came by email.

It was 5:56 a.m.

“Steven at precinct 07A is stating that he does not have keys to open his voting booths. There is no one answering at the number provided to us,” the elections service hotline manager wrote to the top elections staff. " … We can’t appropriately assist without updated information.

“BTW, Good Morning!”

It was not a good morning.

Emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Open Records Act show how a national embarrassment unfolded on June 9. Under-trained staff tried to run a contentious election in the middle of a pandemic with brand-new equipment.

Some people had to wait all day to cast their votes, and others were forced to the polls because they never received mail-in ballots.

“People are leaving the polls … please help,” a county elections board member wrote to the top state elections official.

“We can’t afford to shut it down,” the elections head wrote after finding out a poll manager was positive for COVID-19.

“Congratulations on absolutely failing,” wrote one voter.

But the emails also show that problems were quickly identified, and those problems have in turn illuminated solutions that have been implemented ahead of the November presidential election cycle: Fulton’s absentee process has been streamlined; there are 255 Election Day precincts compared to 164 in June; and Georgia’s most populous county now has more early voting sites than Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties combined.

“I feel very confident going into this election,” said Fulton elections board chairwoman Mary Carole Cooney.

‘More harm than good’

Fulton elections head Richard Barron described the challenges in an email to elections board members the Saturday before Election Day in June.

Elections staff had to scramble to add last-minute workers, some being trained over the weekend. County workers from other departments were also thrust into service.

“Six of every seven early voting workers that we asked to work turned us down for COVID concerns," Barron wrote. "Most of our best people sat this election out. Two of the check in clerks ... (were) described as doing more harm than good.”

Since June, county staff members have worked days, nights and through the weekends to fix the many issues. County commissioners doubled the amount budgeted for elections to $34 million, which officials say accounts for 5 percent of the county’s general fund.

The county has used a portion of the sought-after federal coronavirus relief money to woo back polling locations and poll workers who were afraid of COVID, by offering to pay for additional safety measures and deep cleaning the sites.

Barron has said the training process has greatly improved. About 100 people shadowed poll managers during the September special election to fill the seat of late Congressman John Lewis — critical on-the-job training in preparation for a November election that could shatter voter turnout records.

Still, not everyone is convinced.

After waiting three hours in line, Celia Hinely fired off an email to county and city leaders just before 8 p.m. on Election Day in June.

“I can wait all day to vote, but not while my neighbors don’t, no confidence in a system that works like that,” she wrote.

The 57-year-old voted at Park Tavern. About 16,000 voters were registered there, by far more than anywhere else in Georgia. The goal is to have fewer than 5,000 people assigned to each location.

Voters had a long wait, some two to three hours, at the Park Tavern polling place on Tuesday, June 9, 2020 in Atlanta. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

For various reasons, including COVID-19 and school remodeling, two precincts were squished into Park Tavern.

Voters didn’t know it for hours, but they were supposed to form a line for each precinct so everyone could move faster.

Hinely had suggestions for the county in her June email: “Send the call out for new volunteers for November NOW while the sweat and frustration are fresh. Today’s situation multiplied by a presidential election cannot be allowed to happen in November or 57-year-old ladies are going to riot.”

The county did just that.

Barron said they received 7,000 applications from volunteers to work the polls, he called it a “silver lining.” He said they’ll have about 3,500 of them out on Nov. 3.

Hinely told the AJC this week she was happy to hear about the volunteers, and she thinks that it will be vastly improved come November. But she won’t be voting on Election Day.

“I think they’re doing everything they can, but with the new voting machines and whole bunch of [new] poll workers, I plan on voting early at The High," she said recently. “There’s no way in hell I’m doing that again.

‘A lot smoother’

As Hinely stood in line on a muggy June day, Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts came to see it for himself. Reporters asked him what was going on.

“Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong,” Pitts said, standing near the head of the snaking line.

Four long months later, he stands by that, too. But Pitts said he’s in a much better place now.

“I think things are going to be very orderly,” Pitts said Thursday, standing above 300 voting machines in State Farm Arena. The Hawks stepped up, offering their facility and staff as a polling location after seeing the troubles in June. It is now believed to be the largest early voting site in Georgia history.

When reporters pushed about who was to blame for June, Pitts simply said Fulton has done its best to prepare for this election.

But that doesn’t erase the multiple state and federal investigations into Fulton’s handling of the June vote. And it hasn’t solved every problem.

The 300 voting machines at State Farm sat still for roughly 40 minutes Monday, the first day of early voting, because of a check-in glitch. Long lines of eager voters stood for hours — an early indication that the prediction of record turnout in this year’s general election is spot on, which puts even more pressure on Fulton election officials to accommodate the surge.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said it will be hard for Fulton to regain the trust of voters, especially because of the county’s history of complaints, fines and ethics violations.

When asked to make a prediction about Fulton, he said: “Everything is pointing in the direction that things should be going a lot smoother."

He said Fulton really needs that win.

“That begins to erode the ... bad image," he said.

More Georgians than ever before are voting on absentee ballots in this fall’s election.