Opinion: Inside our work Election Day — and night

As Georgians headed to the polls to cast their ballots, everyone had their fingers crossed it would go smoothly – including us.

But the many versions of Wednesday morning’s front-page, and the work by our reporters and photographers in the field, paint a picture of just how badly things turned out.

Today, I wanted to provide a glimpse of how it all came together; of how our reporters worked through the night and into the morning to help make readers make sense of the chaos; of how we, as an institution, called for change.

As you might imagine, covering an election requires planning – and a lot of it.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s primary, editors and reporters had been meeting to figure out how to deploy our resources and how to present the results on the pages of our printed newspaper and on AJC.com.

From the very beginning, we knew this election would be different.

Amid the pandemic, voters would have to be spaced 6 feet apart. Poll workers would need to take time to clean touchscreens to prevent the spread of germs. With some churches concerned about the risk of allowing voters inside during the health crisis, about 10% of Georgia’s precincts were closed.

Voters would also be using a new system that prints out a paper ballot as they worked through a long selection of choices.

And here’s where I’d like to share a secret.

For big events, such as an election, we design an early mockup of the front page days in advance. Rather than starting from scratch, this early design allows us to move quickly and adjust as the day unfolds.

In looking back at that early draft of Wednesday’s front page, it painted an optimistic picture.

But three minutes after the polls officially opened on Tuesday morning, it became clear that trouble was looming, and feeds from reporters, photographers and others in the field pointed to the issues that lie ahead.

At 7:03 a.m., Amanda Coyne, one of our reporters, wrote: “As doors opened at Best Friend Park in Norcross, about 20 people were in line waiting to vote. In recent primaries and general elections, this location hasn’t seen lines before polls opened.”

Fifteen minutes later, Melanie Stolte, who also works in our newsroom, posted this: “Very long (and socially distanced) line at Life Church Smyrna Assembly of God in Smyrna … It’s a large church and the line is wrapped around the church and parking lot.”

At 7:34 a.m., Ben Brasch wrote: “A poll worker is walking the line at the Central Park Recreation Center telling the 140 voters in line that a machine is down.”

At 8 a.m., Greg Bluestein, who would eventually pull an all-nighter, posted: “All eight machines at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain are down.”

Clearly, a bad day for voters was taking shape.

At 9:56 that morning, as I stood in line to vote outside a church in East Point with a dying cell phone, I called Rick Crotts, one of the editors on our print team. We agreed that our early front-page design would need to be adjusted.

But at that point, neither of us had any idea just how much our plans would change.

Back at the polls, anger and a sense of disbelief was brewing.

One woman told Bluestein: “I’m not leaving until I cast a ballot … I’m shaking just talking about this. But I’m staying. This is my civic duty. Something has to change.”

Another voter, who had already been waiting in line for two hours, shared the same sentiment with reporter J.D. Capelouto: “This is too much trouble. It’s ridiculous. It’s only discouraging. This is insulting to our constitutional right to vote.”

That afternoon, as we do each day, editors in our newsroom gathered for our 1:30 p.m. news meeting. Here, we check in on the stories we’ve been pursuing and discuss others that have developed. The bulk of that day’s meeting focused on what had been happening at the polls, and two reporters began working on stories to try to assess what happened – and why.

We also took the unusual step of scheduling two more meetings – one at 6 p.m. and another at 8 p.m. (Eventually, we added a 10:30 p.m. meeting.)

At 4:14 Tuesday afternoon, we made the decision that the newspaper needed to weigh in on what had been happening, using our editorial voice to stress that Georgians deserve better; that during this important moment in our democracy, election officials found a way to bungle it – yet again.

In the meantime, Mike Luckovich was busy putting pen to paper, working on three different versions of a cartoon before finally setting on the one that appeared in Wednesday morning’s editions.

As 8 p.m. neared, Flip Kearney, our A1 editor, Crotts and other editors who oversee the printed newspaper gathered for a pre-meeting.

Despite the changes we had already made, we still didn’t feel as if the front page conveyed the sense of chaos that had ensued. At that point in the evening, long lines remained, and voting hours at some polling places had already been extended.

So, we began redesigning the front page – yet again.

We recognized that the main headline would be more important than ever – that it would need to set the tone and tenor for our presentation.

Headlines are always much more difficult to write than they might seem. But as we perused an early version of Mark Niesse’s front-page story, we stumbled upon a quote from State Rep. William Boddie, who called what had happened a “complete meltdown.”

At that moment, at 7:57 p.m., we knew we had settled on our front-page headline.

It also was becoming clear that deadlines would be an issue.

Every election night, we walk the fine line between wanting to deliver complete results while ensuring that your newspaper lands on your driveway when it should. Wednesday’s morning forecast called for rain. That meant that your newspaper would need to be “double-bagged” so that it wouldn’t be a soggy mess. That always slows us down – and presented yet another hurdle on a night that had been filled with them.

Nonetheless, we stretched deadlines and even published a later edition of the newspaper that carried some early results on which Democrat could face Republican David Perdue in the U.S. Senate race.

At 12:34 a.m. on Wednesday, we wrapped up a third edition for our digital replica, the ePaper.

It was a busy night, and a busy week.

But it was worth it.

As the days and weeks unfold, we promise to keep at it, examining not only what went wrong, but more importantly, sharing some ideas on what steps can be taken to ensure that this never happens again.

After all, as we said in Thursday morning’s editorial, Georgians deserve better.

Mark Waligore is Managing Editor and Senior Director of the AJC.