Opinion: We must find fixes for Fulton’s elections dysfunction

Call her Susie. She arrived at her polling place on Election Day to find a much longer and slower-moving line than usual. She chatted amiably with her line mates, declined offers of a folding chair and scanned the clover for a four-leaf that might turn around their luck.

After three hours, she was nearing the front of the line when a fellow senior citizen asked a poll worker – the first to come into view that day – why there weren’t accommodations for older voters. A tad too nonchalantly, the poll worker said they could have skipped the line altogether. But then, neither she nor any of the other eight poll workers had ventured much past the front door to explain what was going on to the scores of people waiting in the hot sun, much less looked for any seniors who should have been spared the ordeal.

This was just one of many failures at Susie’s polling place, including a broken ID-reading machine that wasn’t fixed or replaced. I know because I stood next to her in the line those same three hours, and for 30 minutes after that.

If you have been reading this newspaper, you know thousands of Fulton County residents endured equally unacceptable conditions on Election Day. You know thousands more waited in vain for the absentee ballots they’d requested. You know a combination of COVID-19, new voting machines and other issues plagued many counties in Georgia – but also that none was as bad as Fulton.

And you may recognize that politics threatens to drag Fulton’s voting woes into a toxic brew of race and partisanship. Fulton residents cannot let that happen, if we want anything to improve after years of failures.

The way we frame a problem determines how, or even whether, we will solve it. The correct framing for Fulton’s voting woes is one of years-long mismanagement.

Let’s start by acknowledging two truths. The first is that black voters, and other minorities, in Georgia historically have faced many more obstacles to voting than white voters. The second is that, judging by turnout figures, those obstacles have lessened in more-recent years. That’s not to say everything is fine, just that things aren’t as bad as they used to be.

Some observers, whether because of their firsthand experience or political opportunism, cast Fulton’s woes this year as also driven by race. I cannot deny that black voters in Fulton faced long lines and unrequited absentee-ballot requests. I can, however, offer some evidence they aren’t the only ones.

Three investigations into Fulton’s problems during this primary election have been announced. It will be some time before we have a comprehensive overview of what went wrong, and why. For now, consider this unscientific sampling of where problems occurred, gleaned from AJC news reports, social media and my own eyes.

Absolutely, many voters in predominantly black precincts faced waits of two hours, three hours or longer, due to technical glitches, poorly trained poll workers and more. These included voters at the polling places at Sandtown Park Recreation Center (where 85% of active voters are black, according to county records) in South Fulton, Solid Rock Pentecostal Church (83% black) and City Auditorium (57% black) in College Park, and Metropolitan Library (69% black) in southwest Atlanta.

But they also included voters at these Atlanta polling places: Parkside Elementary School (53% white), Central Park Recreation Center (54% white), Lang-Carson Recreation Center (57% white), Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church (58% white), Park Tavern (63% white) and Morris Brandon Primary Center (73% white). And they included the Johns Creek Environmental Campus (71% white) and Roswell Library (76% white).

Understand, I am not arguing it was worse in predominantly white areas; again, this is a fairly random and almost certainly incomplete sample. I’m simply arguing the problem was more pervasive than one prevailing narrative would have you believe.

It’s important to recognize the widespread nature of the problem in Fulton, because otherwise we won’t solve it. People who had no problems on Election Day or receiving absentee ballots from their counties – and there were many such voters – may dismiss our complaints as whining. Republicans will blame the Democratic-led county government. Democrats will blame the GOP-led state government.

We know all this, because it’s happened before.

Fixing it this time requires exploring all options, including direct intervention by the Secretary of State’s Office. Local control is important, but so is accountability. We’ve had plenty of the former and precious little of the latter. That must change before November.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.