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Why did some voting machines sit unused on busy Georgia Election Day?

Metro Atlanta voters stood in long lines Tuesday, amid a surge in turnout that made the midterm election resemble a presidential contest.

As they waited — some for hours — hundreds of voting machines sat unused, locked up in government warehouses, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

The machines were sequestered by local officials because of an ongoing federal lawsuit that argues Georgia’s electronic voting machines could be hacked or tampered with.

With fewer machines in precincts, voters faced heavy delays, often more than an hour, before they got to the front of the line. The issue affected voters in Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties, the three jurisdictions covered by the court case.

Election officials said Wednesday that the lack of voting machines — combined with high turnout and wordy constitutional amendments — created some of the longest lines in years. They said that by the time they realized turnout would significantly exceed the last midterm election, there wasn’t time to find additional machines.

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“We thought we had enough until turnout started expanding, and with the ballot being long and complicated, the time at the touchscreen was longer,” said Cobb Elections Director Janine Eveler. “We had voters who called and expressed their frustration.”

There were about 1,050 voting machines in Cobb precincts Tuesday while about 550 were sequestered. The county could have deployed a total of about 1,400 voting machines if they had been available, Eveler said.

Another 700 direct-recording electronic voting machines were out of service in Fulton, along with 585 in DeKalb.

Professor J. Alex Halderman, during a demonstration at Georgia Tech, uses malware on a memory card to show how easy it is to hack Georgia’s electronic voting machines. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The machines are set aside because of an order by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg last December that called for preservation of evidence in a lawsuit seeking to move Georgia from electronic voting machines to paper ballots. Totenberg denied a motion in September to immediately throw out the state’s voting machines, but the lawsuit is still underway.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which include election integrity groups and Georgia voters, want to examine a sample of each county’s voting machines to prove that they’re inherently insecure, alleging there’s no way to verify that their election results match voters’ selections. That examination hasn’t yet occurred, and the case is on hold while it’s being appealed.

County election offices should have prepared to ensure they had enough voting machines, said Bruce Brown, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs.

11/6/18 - Atlanta - Angel Poventud, who voted early, volunteers his time to hand out pizza and snacks to people waiting in line. The wait time to vote at the Pittman Park precinct in Atlanta was reported to be three hours. Pizza and snacks were donated for the people waiting in line. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM (Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com)

“No judge anywhere, at any time, has ever ordered Fulton County or any other county to set aside more machines than they said they could spare,” Brown said. “No request was ever made by anyone to plaintiffs or the court suggesting that Fulton or anyone else needed more machines for this or any other election.”

No matter who’s at fault, voters suffered the consequences.

Throughout Election Day, The AJC heard complaints from voters who said when they arrived to vote they were met with fewer machines.

There were only four voting machines at First Presbyterian Church on Peachtree Street in Fulton County, a sharp reduction from the 10 or 15 voters available in the 2016 presidential election, said Rob Lami, who waited an hour and 45 minutes to vote.

Another voter, Paul Johnson, said he saw the long line and came back later Tuesday. After he returned, he still had to wait two hours.

“Usually this is not a long wait line,” Johnson said.

Extreme lines and technical difficulties caused judges to order three precincts in Fulton to remain open late. Three more precincts in Gwinnett stayed open beyond the normal closing time because of separate problems unrelated to having too few voting machines, such as machines running out of batteries.

In Fulton, Elections Director Richard Barron said the county had about 40 spare machines, and they had to be kept as a backup in case other machines had issues. There were nearly 2,000 voting machines in use in Fulton this election.

“We have a shortage,” Barron said. “We’re somewhat stuck with how many machines we can put out in the field.”

An unrelated mistake led to too few machines at Pittman Park Recreation Center, where only three voting machines were initially available before five more were sent later. Barron said the location contains two precincts, and voting machines were incorrectly allocated based on the number of registered voters in the smaller precinct.

11/6/18 - Atlanta - The wait time to vote at the Pittman Park precinct in Atlanta was reported to be three hours. Pizza and snacks were donated for the people waiting in line. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM (Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com)

All three counties impacted by the shortage favored Democrat Stacey Abrams over Republican Brian Kemp, who is the state’s top election official.

But Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office, said county election officials manage their plans for allocating and deploying voting equipment, and they don’t share those plans with Kemp’s office

The parties in the lawsuit discussed how to preserve evidence and how many machines were needed in May, said David Cross, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs. He said Fulton officials abandoned those discussions.

“If Fulton ended up with too few machines, it’s their fault,” Cross said. “It had nothing to do with the court.”

An attorney representing Cobb and DeKalb counties disagreed, saying machines being held back was a contributing factor to long lines, along with high turnout. About 57 percent of registered voters participated in Tuesday’s election.

“The intent to protect elections by the other side might have had the opposite outcome,” said the attorney, Daniel White. “That’s a lot of machines to have to hold out. It doesn’t leave a lot of margin.”

— Staff writers Ben Brasch and Becca J.G. Godwin contributed to this article.

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