Georgia’s expensive new voting machines weren’t working.
Poll workers at some precincts couldn’t call up voters’ registrations. Touchscreens that were supposed to display ballots faded to black. Delays compounded into more delays, frustrating voters.
“They have a line,” a report from one precinct said, “and people are leaving.”
This was November, when Georgia rolled out its $104 million voting system in a handful of counties. It was a soft opening, a chance for state officials to identify bugs that could be fixed before 2020’s statewide primary elections.
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, many of the same problems emerged Tuesday, turning election day in Georgia into a familiar fiasco.
An examination by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that human error, equipment failure and a complicated, multicomputer voting system combined to create chaos that left some voters waiting as long as eight hours to cast ballots.
The coronavirus pandemic made matters worse, preventing in-person training for many election workers and requiring social distancing and continual sanitizing of sensitive equipment that added to logjams at many polling places.
Precinct workers, some of them hired just a day earlier, didn’t always know how to operate the equipment. Some couldn’t even plug all four of the system’s components — a tablet computer, a touchscreen voting machine, a printer and a scanner — into the correct power supplies.
>>RESULTS: Georgia election results
At the same time, passwords for the electronic poll books sometimes didn’t work. Printers jammed. Touchscreens kept crashing, requiring time-consuming reboots.
So, just as in the 2018 gubernatorial election, voters in many precincts were stuck in lines so long they deterred some from voting at all. And, with many of the most severe problems occurring in precincts with mostly minority voters, the specter of racially motivated voter suppression loomed large — as did the prospect of even more chaos in November.
The day was “a big, big fail” that election officials should have anticipated, said Marilyn Marks, the executive director of the Coalition for Good Government, a voting rights organization that is suing the state over election security.
“This is complex equipment,” Marks said. “You’ve got poll workers who are not trained.” State election officials, she said, “created a guaranteed set of problems.”
“Look, if one poll worker makes a mistake, that’s user error,” said Eddie Perez of the Open Source Election Technology Institute. “If you have many poll workers unable to operate the system, that’s a system design problem.”
Georgia’s chief elections officer, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, took no responsibility for Tuesday’s debacle. Rather, he is asking the General Assembly to let him force management changes in county election offices that he deems out of compliance with state rules. He is expected to detail his proposal during a news conference Monday.
Raffensperger, a Republican who had never overseen a statewide election day before Tuesday, has disputed suggestions of targeted voter suppression while aiming much of his criticism at DeKalb and Fulton counties, which had some of the longest lines along with Georgia’s highest concentrations of Democratic and African American voters.
Raffensperger has discounted problems experienced elsewhere, especially in less-populated counties that tend to vote Republican. But polls had to remain open past the 7 p.m. closing time in 20 counties. Those included Cobb and Gwinnett, which, with Fulton and DeKalb, are home to one-third of Georgia voters.
‘A perfect storm’
Raffensperger’s office declined to detail how it addressed the issues with the new voting equipment discovered in November’s elections, saying only that those problems were incorporated into training. In that pilot program, just 27,000 people voted, and turnout in those counties ranged from 6% to 15%.
In a report on what went wrong, Raffensperger’s office said the new system “fundamentally changes the way that the state of Georgia has conducted voting for nearly two decades.”
However, the report concluded: “Nearly all issues were caused by human error or interaction, which can be mitigated through training or identified through testing.”
The secretary of state’s office trained county elections supervisors on the new system — but most sessions took place in October, before the problems were known. It offered make-up and refresher courses in November and January.
Then the coronavirus twice forced the postponement of the presidential primary, originally scheduled for March 24. The general primary, set for May 19, was also delayed. During those lulls, with most in-person training stopped, few poll workers had a chance to try out the new voting equipment. They instead had to watch online video demonstrations.
“Frankly, we got hit with a perfect storm,” said Gabriel Sterling, who managed statewide implementation of the new system. “You can train and train and train, until you get in a live-fire environment.”
“They were trained on it, and many poll workers across the state knew what to do,” Sterling said, describing Fulton County as an outlier. “But there was a large percentage of people, mainly in one county, who didn’t.”
Fulton has a history of struggling to efficiently run major elections. The county fired its elections director and replaced most of its elections board after problems surfaced in 2012 voting. Fulton precincts also had extremely long lines during the 2018 election for governor.
Mary Carole Cooney, the chairwoman of Fulton’s elections board, said the county elections office was overwhelmed last week, in part because of the coronavirus. “We felt like it was an avalanche.”
Last Tuesday, as polls remained open well into the night, Raffensperger contended that Fulton and other counties are solely in charge of running elections, even for statewide and federal offices.
But state law makes the secretary of state responsible for training county election superintendents, providing clear instructions and buying usable voting equipment.
The agency took a more active role when Georgia last introduced a new voting system, in 2002.
Cathy Cox, a Democrat who was the secretary of state at the time, said last week that her office ran mock elections and drills for election officials across the state. On election day, the company that manufactured the voting machines dispatched 550 technicians to polling places to make sure everything operated smoothly. On Tuesday, just 175 technical support workers were available statewide, and they quickly were inundated by calls for help.
“We wanted the poll workers to be very comfortable, very experienced, very ready for election day,” Cox said Tuesday night in a Facebook Live chat organized by the Georgia WIN List, a group that promotes female candidates, mostly Democrats.
“You have to think through every step of what it takes to operate these machines, what every step of the voters’ interface with the machine is and what can go wrong at every step to prevent a problem,” said Cox, now the dean of Mercer University’s law school.
She did not directly criticize Raffensperger. But she said an election “really is a statewide secretary of state effort, and that’s where the responsibility needs to fall.”
Raffensperger could ask lawmakers for more money to open more precincts, buy more voting equipment and hire more staff. County officials could do the same. But budget shortfalls, caused largely by the coronavirus, make any new spending seem unlikely.
Along with the new voting system, many Georgians had to navigate new polling places Tuesday. Before the primaries, 10% of precincts closed or relocated, many from churches and senior centers that were shuttered because of the coronavirus.
At some precincts, voting couldn’t start on time because equipment wasn’t working — or hadn’t even been delivered.
In Gwinnett County, for instance, officials had to make last-minute deliveries of equipment to 26 precincts. At 5 a.m. Tuesday, the county’s elections supervisor, Kristi Royston, emailed other Gwinnett officials to say her staff was still trying to get enough trucks and drivers to distribute the equipment by the time polls opened at 7 a.m.
At Central Park Recreation Center in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, 7 a.m. came and went without the doors opening. Sarah Thuerk ended up waiting five hours to cast her ballot.
“The lines kept building up, and there were no provisional ballots handed out,” Thuerk said. “It just led to disaster. It does feel like voter disenfranchisement.”
The troubles of Tuesday don’t bode well for November. It’s a presidential election, and both of Georgia’s U.S. senators will face voters. County, judicial and legislative races also will be on the ballot. Officials have estimated that as many as 5 million of Georgia’s 7.3 million registered voters could cast ballots — a turnout three times higher than in last week’s primaries.
U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican up for re-election in November, described the primaries as a “meltdown” and a “debacle.” But he rejected the idea that the problems represented an organized effort to keep certain people from voting.
“The counties where we have a problem, they’re run by Democrat majorities,” Perdue said. “This idea of voter suppression is a lie right out of the pit of hell.”
Democrat Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in 2018 and founded the voting rights group Fair Fight Action, linked the polling problems with Georgia’s history as a Southern state that systematically disenfranchised minority voters.
“Tuesday exposed very clearly, beyond any capacity for doubt, that suppression is real,” Abrams said. “Broken systems exist. In this broader moment that we’re in, it’s a clarion call for action.”
— Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.