Georgia’s election problems blasted as November vote looms

Voters waited as much as 3 1/2 hours in long lines, at times in the rain, Tuesday at New Beginnings Full Gospel Church. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Voters waited as much as 3 1/2 hours in long lines, at times in the rain, Tuesday at New Beginnings Full Gospel Church. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Georgia’s messy election day once again put the state’s voting struggles in the national spotlight, highlighting the need for improvements before a high-turnout presidential election in November.

Several voting rights groups summed up the election in one word: “unacceptable.”

After months of postponements and preparations, the election was marred by long lines, technical difficulties and voter confusion. Some voters waited more than five hours before finally casting their ballots after midnight at one precinct, a church in Union City south of Atlanta.

The problems resulted in finger-pointing and investigations but few concrete solutions before runoffs Aug. 11 and the general election Nov. 3. State and county election officials said they would improve poll worker training and consider adding voting precincts.

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Challenges facing voters, especially those in heavily African American neighborhoods, led to accusations of voter suppression.

“Georgia’s election was a complete catastrophe,” said Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington-based civil rights organization. “If we view the primary election as a dry run for November, then Georgia gets an F.”

While some lines on election day were expected because of social-distancing requirements during the coronavirus, no one predicted the extent of difficulties facing voters Tuesday, especially in DeKalb and Fulton counties. There were warning signs, however, such as precinct closures, poll worker shortages and absentee ballots that never reached voters' mailboxes.

Poll workers couldn't get the state's new voting equipment working. Voting machines were delivered after polls opened in some precincts in Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Precincts closed because of the coronavirus, some shortly before election day, forcing voters into fewer voting locations.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger also said it was unacceptable for voters to wait in hours-long lines that wrapped around buildings. He said he’ll review what could be done better and what additional training is needed.

“I will continue to work with our county elections boards and directors to train them to properly deliver, install and maintain our voting system,” said Raffensperger, a Republican who took office last year. “It is clear that some counties continue to not perform. It is the responsibility of the counties to properly deliver and install equipment. It is the responsibility of the counties to properly train its poll workers.”

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Raffensperger said counties are in charge of running elections, but he faced criticism for not doing more to help them prepare for a difficult primary.

Twenty of Georgia’s 159 counties kept precincts open late Tuesday because of problems. Raffensperger said his office will support county election officials before upcoming elections.

The state had 175 tech support staffers across the state Tuesday, but they were quickly overwhelmed by calls of problems getting equipment started. Poll workers said they had trouble encoding voter access cards, logging into tablets and starting up voting computers.

Raffensperger opened an investigation into voting problems in DeKalb and Fulton counties on Tuesday, a step that could result in fines or recommendations from the State Elections Board.

An attorney in an election security lawsuit against Raffensperger said investigations need to be independent from his office.

“That is like letting Tom Brady investigate Deflategate or letting Nixon investigate Watergate,” said Bruce Brown, who represents voters seeking to replace voting computers with hand-marked paper ballots. “Georgia, thanks to its leadership, again looks like the most incompetent and poorly run state in the nation.”

House Speaker David Ralston also opened a legislative investigation into voting problems but stopped short of calling for new state laws. He said the General Assembly could consider a measure, Senate Bill 463, to open more precincts if it has time after passing the state budget this month.

"We have an obligation to make sure some of the problems we had yesterday don't happen," Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, said Tuesday on "Political Rewind" on Georgia Public Broadcasting. "There was a lot of voter frustration yesterday."

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign also condemned Georgia’s election process, calling it “completely unacceptable.”

Georgia voters deserve better, said Aunna Dennis, the executive director for Common Cause Georgia, a government accountability group.

“Today’s problems were avoidable — and they disenfranchised voters,” Dennis said. “That must not be allowed to happen again.”

If problems aren't corrected, Georgia's recent voting history from the 2018 election for governor and Tuesday's primary could repeat itself in November, with voters unable to cast their ballots unless they spent hours waiting.

And November’s election will be much more difficult to run than Tuesday’s. Turnout in November is expected to reach 5 million voters, well over double the number of voters in the primary. Turnout figures for the primary weren’t yet available Wednesday.

“If this is a preview of November,” DeKalb County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson said, “then we’re in trouble.”

Voting problems in Georgia’s primary

  • Long waits to vote
  • Precinct closures
  • Poll worker training on new voting equipment
  • Too few poll workers
  • Some voters never received absentee ballots
  • Voting computers delivered after polls opened
  • Precincts ran out of backup paper ballots