06/09/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Mail-in paper ballots wait to be scanned by Fulton County employees at the Georgia World Congress Center during the Georgia primary elections, Tuesday, June 9, 2020.
Photo: Alyssa Pointer, alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
Photo: Alyssa Pointer, alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

OPINION: Georgia deserves much better on elections

Georgia blew it — big time. An election meltdown that had been simmering here for a long time finally boiled over Tuesday for all the world to see.

The election process — what should be a near-sacred ritual of this Republic — quickly devolved into what national and local commentators called, with ample justification, a hot mess.

Georgia must do much better when the next election comes.

That’s a big lift, given looming deadlines and wild cards like a global pandemic. But it’s a task that this state must resolve. Democracy demands that much, especially during this divided, angry age that’s strained or shattered faith in bedrock civic institutions.

There is adequate blame to go around, and leaders here chose to play the currently fashionable blame game of institutional finger-pointing. Given the magnitude of what happened and the risks for democracy now laid bare, it matters less who screwed up and how.

What is of paramount importance is to assess what went wrong and fix it before the next election.

The intramural sniping should stop, and the focus needs to shift toward repairing an embarrassing, intolerable mess.

That shouldn’t be an insurmountably hard job, given the many leaders of government who are quick to proclaim their “get ’er done” credentials honed in the private sector. That ethos seemed in pitifully short supply on Tuesday as politicians largely laid the fault for this debacle at others’ doorsteps.

Voters wait in long lines, at times in the rain, at New Beginnings Full Gospel Church on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. The lines were taking more than 3.5 hours. This polling location opened at 7 a.m. with only one machine of the four available working and had two of the four working at 4:30 p.m. and was not providing provisional ballots. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

It’s popular now in American politics to seemingly campaign incessantly, long after elections are over and key offices filled. That has created a smokescreen, obscuring the fact that officeholders and the bureaucrats they oversee should be expected to competently deliver at least the basics of sound governance.

Elections are a cornerstone of that. Or they should be. And they must be.

The back-and-forth we saw Tuesday was simply childish and unbecoming of the leadership for a state that proclaims itself as world-class. Our elections apparatus certainly and spectacularly failed this week to live up to those claims. And it’s fair to ask just what that says about the caliber of leaders we’ve chosen here.

Looking at what happened in a granular sense, it was not shocking but certainly saddening to see that Fulton County once more bungled a key election. Georgia’s largest county saw widespread problems of long lines, usage of brand-new voting machines, inadequate staffing or training and other technical breakdowns.

The word “nightmare” was not on the ballot, but it certainly swept the election.

Fulton County could have provided a stellar example of what an efficient voting process could look like for an important, diverse county. Perhaps not in a century or more has that been as important as it is now.

But the influential county failed spectacularly in delivering that to voters and others who were watching.

Fulton County officials, taxpayers and voters should demand that such a breakdown does not happen again.

In fairness, Fulton was not the only county with problems. Long lines, technical problems and staffing issues were reported elsewhere in metro Atlanta and in other Georgia cities and rural areas.

The problems in places like Savannah and Columbus strongly suggest that there are large challenges that the state needs to look at seriously. That will only happen if Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger ends attempts to deflect away the failures by laying blame on counties.

That’s unacceptable, given the Secretary of State’s office has overall responsibility for overseeing Georgia’s elections. For this state and its 159 counties to work, or succeed in a competitive world, citizens need to have faith in bedrock institutions of our government.

Having reasonable access to the ballot – and a reasonable belief that votes cast will actually be counted – is a cornerstone of American democracy.

Georgia’s behavior so far seems intent on comprehensively undermining that trust. Our history in recent years does not seem to be improving in this regard. Large swaths of voters have adequate reason to believe we’re getting worse.

That is dangerous for an America and Georgia that are now in a stormy moment of existence. Blaming each other — or the other political party — will not improve things.

Instead, Georgia needs brainstorming — not blamestorming — if this problem is to be fixed.

That will take collaboration and cooperation at all levels of government, focused on fixing problems — and not affixing blame on the other guy.

State, county and local officials should start now on assessing just what went wrong and how problems can be repaired. Assuming the worst scenarios for the next election seems a good place to start. As in:

• Figure that the stubborn coronavirus will still be in our midst, necessitating complications of social distancing and repeatedly disinfecting our new, touch-screen voting machines.

• Count on shaky poll worker participation because of virus fears or other reasons.

• Account for the inescapable need to train election workers in an age where packed training rooms seem an artifact of yesteryear.

• Allow for an unprecedented number of absentee ballots that use a postal service that’s also under strain in this COVID-19 economy.

The list of variables no doubt goes on for a while. Find them, study them and absorb the lessons.

Other states seem to have had a much-better time of it on Tuesday. Neighboring South Carolina is also rolling out new electronic machines that produce a paper ballot that’s scanned to tabulate results. The Palmetto State saw some issues, according to news reports, but nothing on the scale of Georgia’s meltdown.

Georgia should quickly learn what other states do differently to achieve better results. That seems a more-worthwhile endeavor than convening new investigations seemingly intent on pinning blame elsewhere.

With the future of democracy at some risk, now is not the time for those kinds of time-honored, cover-your-rear political parlor games.

Georgia and its voters need a voting system that works. That must be our common endpoint. Our leaders must work to ensure that another widespread election breakdown does not happen here.

Georgians, after all, deserve better.

The Editorial Board.

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