Voting machines and coronavirus force long lines on Georgia voters

Some voters waited two to three hours Tuesday at the Park Tavern polling place in Atlanta. Many voters said they requested absentee ballots but never received them. Two lines, 300 yards long, each formed parallel to Piedmont Park in the parking lot as people patiently waited to vote. Over 1.2 million people had already voted before the polls opened Tuesday, three-quarters of them with absentee-by-mail ballots, allowing them to avoid human contact at the polls. Voters will decide on many candidates, from president to county sheriff. The ballot also includes races for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the Georgia General Assembly. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Some voters waited two to three hours Tuesday at the Park Tavern polling place in Atlanta. Many voters said they requested absentee ballots but never received them. Two lines, 300 yards long, each formed parallel to Piedmont Park in the parking lot as people patiently waited to vote. Over 1.2 million people had already voted before the polls opened Tuesday, three-quarters of them with absentee-by-mail ballots, allowing them to avoid human contact at the polls. Voters will decide on many candidates, from president to county sheriff. The ballot also includes races for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the Georgia General Assembly. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Georgia’s primary quickly turned into an ordeal for voters who waited for hours Tuesday when it became clear officials were unprepared for an election on new voting computers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Poll workers couldn't get voting machines to work. Precincts opened late. Social-distancing requirements created long lines. Some voters gave up and went home.

The primary was a major test of Georgia's ability to run a highly anticipated election in a potential battleground state ahead of November's presidential election, when more than twice as many voters are expected. Elections officials fell short.

“What is going on in Georgia? We have been waiting for hours. This is ridiculous. This is unfair,” said 80-year-old Anita Heard, who waited for hours to cast her ballot at Cross Keys High School, where poll workers couldn’t start voting computers and ran out of provisional ballots.

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Problems have been building for weeks as precincts closedpoll workers quit and the primary was postponed because of the health danger posed by the coronavirus crisis. Some voters south of Atlanta waited eight hours to vote on the last day of early voting Friday.

But the election went worse than expected Tuesday, especially in metro Atlanta, when poll workers couldn't get Georgia's new $104 million voting system system running. The system uses touchscreens and printers to create paper ballots.

Both Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and House Speaker David Ralston opened separate investigations Tuesday into elections management, focusing on Fulton County, where the largest number of problems were reported.

“Obviously, the first time a new voting system is used there is going to be a learning curve, and voting in a pandemic only increased these difficulties,” Raffensperger said. “But every other county faced these same issues and were significantly better prepared to respond so that voters had every opportunity to vote.”

Some local officials say the secretary of state bears responsibility.

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond called issues with voting machines “an attack on the democratic process.”

“If there was a failure of leadership, it starts where the buck should stop, at the top. The eradication of any ‘learning curve’ rests squarely at the feet of the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, and his office,” Thurmond said. “It is the secretary of state’s responsibility to train, prepare and equip election staff throughout the state to ensure fair and equal access to the ballot box.”

Raffensperger’s office denied there were any technical glitches with the voting equipment itself. Instead, poll workers didn’t know how to encode voter access cards, enter PIN numbers correctly or plug machines into power supplies.

Poll workers said that wasn’t always the case. They said they couldn’t log into voter check-in tablets, and ballots didn’t always display on touchscreens.

The secretary of state’s office dispatched tech support contractors across the state, but they were overwhelmed by calls when precincts opened at 7 a.m.

Most of the difficulties with voting machines were resolved, but long lines remained in some precincts. Other counties in Georgia, especially rural areas with lower populations, reported fewer problems.

But challenges with voting machines spread to several major cities, resulting in polls held open late in parts of metro Atlanta, Columbus and Savannah. In Columbus, for example, election officials said they had difficulties setting up ballot printers because they only gathered for training once because of the coronavirus.

At the Parkside Elementary School precinct in Fulton, the state’s most populous county, Danielle Johnston had to wait three hours and 45 minutes to cast her ballot. Voters relayed word that voting machines weren’t working. Johnston said poll workers never communicated with the voters in line, and she was not offered a provisional ballot.

“This is insulting to our constitutional right to vote,” Johnston said. “I don’t know what their excuse is this time.”

Fulton has a long history of lines and delays in its elections, but elected officials said change is needed.

State Rep. William Boddie said Fulton was in a "complete meltdown."

“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing. We’re having issues throughout the county,” the East Point Democrat said. “Did they not know this was going to be a voting day for months? Fulton County’s Board of Elections can’t be let off the hook this time. It’s inexcusable.”

Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who stood in line for 2 1/2 hours, put the blame squarely on the county’s elections department.

“It’s another black eye for Fulton County,” Hausmann said. “We have management problems, I don’t know how you say otherwise.”

Many of the problems resulted from election workers who weren't adequately trained, the subject of a lawsuit against the state government by Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams after her defeat in the 2018 race for governor. The lawsuit seeks sweeping changes and federal court intervention in Georgia's elections.

“Unfortunately, poll workers don’t always have the training and support that’s needed from the secretary of state,” said Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Fair Fight Action. “If poll workers statewide are not trained properly, the responsibility lies at the top.”

Over 1 million Georgians voted on absentee ballots before election day — an unprecedented increase in remote voting in Georgia — but that still left hundreds of thousands of in-person voters on Tuesday.

The voting problems in the primary foreshadows difficulties facing voters in the presidential election in November, said Michael McDonald, who runs the United States Elections Project at the University of Florida. About 5 million Georgia voters are expected to turn out this fall.

“I have never seen the scale of election failures happening in Georgia today,” McDonald said. “This does not bode well for November.”

— Staff writers Vanessa McCray, Raisa Habersham, Greg Bluestein, Ben Brasch, Amanda C. Coyne, Leon Stafford, Willoughby Mariano, David Wickert, Kristal Dixon, Sarah Kallis and  Adrianne Murchison contributed to this article.

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