DeKalb officials reflect on chaotic election day, how to move forward

C.K. Hoffler (center) wore a face shield as she voted at Cross Keys High School in DeKalb County on Tuesday. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

C.K. Hoffler (center) wore a face shield as she voted at Cross Keys High School in DeKalb County on Tuesday. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

As issues began to emerge Tuesday morning in Georgia's widely panned primary election, state officials quickly passed the blame, saying their new voting machines weren't the problem.

“We have reports of poll workers not understanding setup or how to operate voting equipment,” statewide voting implementation manager Gabriel Sterling said early in the day. “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.”

That comment irked DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. Still does.

On Wednesday, as his and several other metro Atlanta counties were still processing tens of thousands of ballots, Thurmond reiterated that he was all for a “top-down” investigation into what happened. That would include how DeKalb handled the election.

But the CEO said laying immediate blame on counties was unproductive and disingenuous.

“Obviously, there’s a problem,” Thurmond said. “How the problem manifested itself requires a comprehensive analysis. You can’t redline the state and say oh, it must be these counties. It should be a seamless system.”

In DeKalb and many other large jurisdictions across the state, election day had a rough start and a late ending.

Officials had already anticipated that the new voting system, a shortage of experienced poll workers and social distancing requirements would create long lines. When poll managers began reporting problems getting things up and running, it only made matters worse.

Neighboring Fulton County, which has a long history of flubbing elections, had the worst day. But DeKalb may have taken second prize.

A number of precincts didn't fully open for an hour or two or three after the usual 7 a.m. start time. Many ended up staying open until 9:30 p.m. One welcomed voters until 10:10 p.m., more than three hours past the typical 7 p.m. closing time.

In between, there was a lot of angst and a lot of waiting.

Ahkeba Green waited more than two hours Peachcrest Elementary School after voters were told machines weren’t working. She left her daughter in line at one point so she could go home and retrieve water to pass out to fellow voters.

“It kind of gives you a voter suppression-type feeling,” Green said. “Sometimes it comes to frustrate you, but you have to push past that and know that it’s our right to vote.”

Sam Tillman, DeKalb County elections board chairman, has continued to push back on the state’s claims that equipment wasn’t an issue. He said most of Tuesday’s problems were related to poll pads, the devices used to help check voters in at their precincts.

“We couldn’t get them to sync with what they needed to sync with in order to properly read the driver’s license or the person’s ID,” he said. “You put a code in there and it would come up with something that nobody recognized and you couldn’t do anything with it.”

“This was not unique to DeKalb and Fulton County, regardless of what people might say,” Tillman added. “This was all over the state.”

By late Wednesday, nearly 24 hours after polls had closed, DeKalb had posted results of election day voting at all but a handful of precincts, as well as around 22,000 advance in-person ballots.

But by lunchtime Thursday, results had been posted for only about 11% of the estimated 100,000 absentee ballots the county received. Several local races were still hanging in the balance.

Thurmond and Tillman both admitted that Tuesday’s circumstances were less than ideal, even setting the new voting system aside.

With regular polling places such as churches and senior living facilities bowing out due to concerns about the coronavirus, more than two dozen voting precincts had to be relocated or combined with others just weeks or days ahead of election day. Some of the county's most experienced poll workers — who tend to be older and black, two of the demographics hardest hit by the pandemic — opted to sit the election out. Some poll workers just didn't show up. And social distancing requirements meant many precincts had fewer voting machines available than usual, purely due to space constraints.

“I’m gonna sit down with our folks, the senior management, poll officials, and see what happened (Tuesday),” Tillman said. “But I’m not gonna dwell on what happened. What we’re gonna do is figure out what we need to do as we get ready for November.”

John Jackson, the chairman of DeKalb Democrats, thinks the county should at least double the elections office’s $5.1 million budget.

But based on population alone, Jackson said, DeKalb should be spending close to three-fourths of what Fulton County does. Fulton’s 2020 election budget was more than $15 million.

“I don’t necessarily have a lot of faith in Brad Raffensperger to do the right thing at the secretary of state’s office,” Jackson said. “I do believe that the Board of Commissioners can and will get the point that we need to plan better. And in order to plan better, we need the resources.”

The larger county government has little direct oversight of the elections office, which is under the purview of the elections board. But commissioners do approve and provide funding for elections.

The county’s mid-year budget adjustment process begins soon, and Tillman said the elections board plans to request funding for as many as five new full-time staffers. That would represent a significant increase for a permanent staff that currently consists of around 15 people, Tillman said.

Just three or four people were sifting through the county’s dramatic number of absentee ballots this week.

“We’ve always been very responsive to budget requests through the board of elections,” Thurmond said. “And we will continue to be.”