New machines, same pain for Fulton County voters

A Fulton County employee prepares mail-in paper ballots to be counted at the Georgia World Congress Center during the Georgia primary elections on Tuesday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

A Fulton County employee prepares mail-in paper ballots to be counted at the Georgia World Congress Center during the Georgia primary elections on Tuesday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

It started bad for Fulton County voters Tuesday and didn’t get much better.

Before the sun rose, it became clear that poll workers were unable to handle the new equipment and voting machines were being delivered late.

That left voters in long lines all day trying to shield themselves from sun and rain.

If there's an easy way to deploy brand new voting equipment amid a pandemic, Fulton hasn't found it. Other counties had problems on Tuesday, but none as bad as what was reported in Fulton — home to 10 percent of all Georgians.

MORE | Voting machines and coronavirus force long lines on Georgia voters

Georgia’s most populated county is now the subject of at least three investigations into its shoddy elections management.

“Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong,” Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said standing by a snaking line of anxious voters outside an impromptu precinct at Park Tavern. He said the county might need younger poll workers who can better handle technology.

Pitts said the county’s poor performance has left leadership worried about what could happen during the presidential election in the fall.

“If you think this is bad, the turnout is going to be even greater in November,” Pitts said.

The county announced an hour before the polls were set to close that, because of the issues, Fulton Superior Judge Eric Dunaway had ruled precincts could remain open until 9 p.m.

06/09/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia  - Fulton County employees open and prepare to scan mail-in ballots to be counted at the Georgia World Congress Center during the Georgia primary elections, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

About then, Barron answered questions from reporters via Zoom about the county’s performance, and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger blaming counties for issues.

“He can say whatever he wants, I disagree with him,” Barron said. “He can’t wash his hands of all the responsibility for this election.”

This is nothing new. Fulton has a history of late returns along with complaintsfines and ethics violations.

Following the discovery of a backlog of voter registrations in Fulton 2012, and precincts running out of provisional ballots, a secretary of state running his first presidential election said: "Given the constant and systemic nature of election failures in Fulton County, I think that every option for remediation of Fulton County elections should be on the table moving forward."

That was current Gov. Brian Kemp.

Fast forward eight years, officials on Tuesday wasted no time pointing fingers at each other.

The state blames the counties, the counties blame their election boards and election boards blame the state.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger launched an investigation of problems in Fulton and DeKalb counties, saying they were "unacceptable." The secretary of state's office was already investigating Fulton for how it handled its absentee ballots, some of which never reached voters' mailboxes despite applications coming in two months ago.

MORE | New voting machines lead to lines and problems on Georgia election day

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston ordered an investigation of statewide irregularities in the primary, emphasizing the issues in Fulton.

“Despite the finger pointing, there have been failures at all levels,” according to a letter written by the Fulton legislative delegation. “Poor planning for the surge in absentee balloting, use of new equipment unfamiliar to voters and poll workers and a failure to get absentee ballots delivered to voters before election day have all contributed to what we’re seeing today.

No matter what officials do now, Fulton’s voters had it the worst Tuesday.

Brittany Westveer, 26, waited five hours to cast her ballot at Lang Carson Recreation Center in Reynoldstown.

“It was incredibly frustrating,” she said.

Westveer said she heard her precinct had issues with machines earlier in the day, but they all appeared to be working when she got inside. She said poll workers were not directing voters, and that no one had talked to voters in line during the five-hour wait. She also said she was not offered a provisional ballot.

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Several lunchtime voters at the North Fulton Service Center in Sandy Springs said they had a good experience with the new voting machines.

One was David Scheuer, who said poll workers provided an additional room in case of rain so people wouldn’t have to wait outside.

“Everyone was distanced pretty well,” he said. “The floor was marked for social distancing. They had hand sanitizer strategically placed.”

Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who represents part of North Fulton, said it took her 2 hours and 40 minutes to vote at the Johns Creek Environmental Campus due to technical issues.

Hausmann said poll workers called for technical help but weren’t able to get through.

Voters at the Johns Creek Environmental Campus found themselves waiting upwards of 30 to 50 minutes in line Tuesday on Election Day. New voting machines were the initial cause for the long lines, but also the precinct hosts three percents in one because of Covid-19 precautions. (Video by Ryon Horne/AJC)

She has been vocal about the absentee ballot backlog issue that Fulton has struggled to fix. It forced many people to vote in person, even though they applied for a mail-in ballots months ago.

Hausmann hoped the $15 million that the county budgeted for elections would be enough for a smooth process – but that was before the coronavirus pandemic.

“What would have been the magic number? We gave them everything they asked for,” she said.

Commissioners have said they only fund elections, while the board of elections runs them. When asked what could be done before the November election, Hausmann said it is highly unusual to change management in the middle of an election season.

Fulton’s current director of registration and elections is Richard Barron, whom a county spokesman said was too busy Tuesday to be interviewed.

“We have management problems, I don’t know how you (could) say otherwise,” said Hausmann, a Republican.

Across the political aisle, Fulton Commissioner Joe Carn agreed with the assessment of Barron’s performance.

“We need to hold him accountable,” said Carn, who is running for re-election this cycle.

When asked about whether it would be wise to add a new elections chief to the list of things going on, Carn said: “Well you couldn’t be much worse.”

In a prepared statement, Barron said his office has identified “several areas for improvement.”

“Specifically, these include our absentee ballot process, tailoring poll worker training to emphasize the issues we identified today, and undertaking an efficiency review for other process improvements,” Barron’s statement said.

AJC reporter Adrianne Murchison contributed to this story.