Metro Atlanta voters face long lines; state investigates Fulton issues

Stephanie Herrera crouches in line as she and other voters lined up in the rain on Friday, June 6, 2020 at Garden Hills Elementary School located at 285 Sheridan Drive NE, in Atlanta. Some waited up to three hours to vote. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

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Stephanie Herrera crouches in line as she and other voters lined up in the rain on Friday, June 6, 2020 at Garden Hills Elementary School located at 285 Sheridan Drive NE, in Atlanta. Some waited up to three hours to vote. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Voters across metro Atlanta endured long lines and waited hours in heat and downpours to cast their ballot on Friday.

Officials with Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties said a mix of social distancing measures and the fact that it was the last day of early voting before Tuesday’s primary led to unusuallylong lines.

This is yet another challenge during an already bumpy election season. New elections equipment is in play. COVID-19 led to fewer polling places and poll workers.

READ | Fulton County fixing backlog of 25,000 absentee ballot applications

Counties also opened fewer early voting precincts assuming voters would cast absentee ballots after Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger asked the roughly 6.9 million voters to cast their ballot by to mail. There's been a spike in civic engagement caused by the protests against racial police violence.

But it seems Fulton voters have been impacted more than many other counties, as seen with some voters waiting up to seven hours to cast a ballot Friday. Fulton was also crippled by a backlog of absentee-by-mail ballot applications that county elections staff struggled to clear.

“Everything that could have happened did happen this season,” said Fulton Chairman Robb Pitts on Friday.

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The Georgia secretary of state’s office on Thursday opened an investigation into Fulton’s handling of absentee ballots, some of which still hadn’t reached voters’ mailboxes Friday.

“Fulton County has made unfortunate decisions that the state did not agree with. For example, they decided to process email applications last,” said state Elections Director Chris Harvey.

Some voters reported they had emailed requests for absentee ballots in early April but still hadn’t received them.

Joshwa Preston said he mailed back his absentee application in the beginning of May, but when he didn’t hear back re-sent his application by email. He didn’t hear back again, so he waited three hours to vote at Garden Hills Elementary in the Lindbergh area.

The 36-year-old, soaked from rain, said he was thankful his manager let him come in late.

Since the county said it was caught up last Tuesday, elections officials have processed nearly 14,000 additional absentee ballot requests, according to elections data.

“I was told we were caught up numerous times and had it caught up, and then found out there were missing application requests that had been emailed,” said Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who helps the secretary of state’s office with communications to other Georgia counties.

Most counties have been able to handle the load of absentee ballot request, but not Fulton, Hausmann said.

“I’m a little worried about what’s going to happen on election day now,” Hausmann said. “We’re going to see a huge in-person turnout, and the absentee ballot program that the state implemented to avoid that, in Fulton it’s not going to be effective.”

Hausmann said she doesn’t know why there are problems. County commissioners budgeted $15 million for elections this year.

“We’ve given them everything they’ve asked for – personnel, equipment, you name it,” Hausmann said. “I hope voters pack their patience when they go to the polls.”

READ | Fulton denies $23M COVID-19 jail isolation units amid protests

But they should also pack a mask, officials say, because the county is still in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Elections staff have added measures like more hand sanitizer, encouraged socially distanced lines and added hours.

Jon Ossoff, who is leading the Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he blames the long lines on "Fulton County election officials (who) have lost or failed to act on a significant number of absentee ballot requests." He said he wants Fulton to keep polls open two hours long on Tuesday, until 9 p.m.

Voters in Cobb also waited three or more hours to cast their votes at five early voting locations, said Janine Eveler, Cobb’s elections director.

“Many people wait until the last day,” Eveler said. “”Because we’re spacing everything out, we’re limiting the number of people in rooms and we can’t fit as much equipment.”

Standing next to Pitts outside the Wolf Creek Library precinct, Fulton’s County Manager Dick Anderson said doesn’t expect the lines to be as bad on Tuesday because there will be roughly 160 locations open as compared to eight early voting sites.

He said the increased civic engagement is a good problem to have. The protests have been so intense this week that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms instituted daily curfews, which she told officers Friday not to enforce for those waiting to vote.

Anderson said they county spent $6,300 on 29 tents, 40 pallets of water and 575 chairs to make the experience more comfortable for voters. He said they also plan to continue handing out fruit and granola bars.

Hundreds of poll workers have dropped out for fear of COVID-19 that Anderson said they they’ve tripled the incentive for temp workers to help at the polls from $50 to $150.

“That’s a small price to pay,” Pitts said.

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