Election troubles fuel suppression worries in Georgia

Long lines and absentee ballot problems are biggest voting obstacles in 2020
Gwinnett County residents wait in line to cast heir ballot on the second day of early voting at the county's Voter Registration and Elections Building in Lawrenceville. Voters faced some of the longest delays in casting their ballots in the first days of early voting in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Gwinnett County residents wait in line to cast heir ballot on the second day of early voting at the county's Voter Registration and Elections Building in Lawrenceville. Voters faced some of the longest delays in casting their ballots in the first days of early voting in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

After hearing about possible voter intimidation, challenges to absentee ballots and the potential for an Election Day meltdown, Shannon Hooker was among the thousands of Georgia voters who showed up on the first day of early voting.

His concerns about voting problems were quickly confirmed.

He faced technology breakdowns in the state’s voting system and a wait that lasted hours. He said he nearly left the excruciating line at his polling location at the Southwest Arts Center near Atlanta, and he witnessed at least 20 other people who left before casting a ballot. He wonders how many of them may never return.

“Hopefully they’ll come back or go to a different voting area,” Hooker said. “I feel everyone’s voice should be heard.”

As Georgians enter the final week of early voting in the runup to the Nov. 3 election, the state is once again at the center of voting rights battles.

Voter suppression fears have reemerged this year in the form of extreme lines and complications with absentee ballots, both of which could prevent votes from being counted.

They come at a moment when the stakes have never been higher. Presidential polls show the contest is close in Georgia, and the nation’s eyes are watching to see whether a legacy of election failures resurfaces.

While more voters than ever are participating in Georgia’s election, many must overcome hurdles to ensure their ballots are counted.

At the start of early voting last week, check-in problems with the state’s voter system left voters stranded for hours and served as a reminder of the failures during the June primary. Wait times of five hours were common in metro Atlanta, with some voters waiting over 11 hours. The longest delays were found in Cobb and Gwinnett counties.

The lines cleared up for the most part after several days, but they’re likely to reoccur when turnout surges in the final days of the three-week early voting period and on Nov. 3.

Polling place closures and relocations across the state, combined with 1 million new voters since the last presidential election, contribute to overcrowded voting locations and concerns that a fragile system could be overloaded.

Remote voting during the coronavirus pandemic also comes with challenges. Some voters haven’t received their absentee ballots after waiting for weeks, and tens of thousands of ballots could be rejected if they’re received too late, after Georgia’s deadline of 7 p.m. on Nov. 3.

“All of this is predictable. It’s unacceptable that people should have to wait in long lines and request absentee ballots that don’t come,” said Hannah Fried, national campaign director for All Voting Is Local, an organization that pushes to remove voting barriers. “If the outcome is that eligible people aren’t voting, we have a real problem in this country.”

The longest waits during early voting have been caused in large part by the state’s slow voter check-in database, a problem that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said was resolved after a few days. But local election officials last week reported the system was still slow at times. And voting rights organizations fear the issue could rise again as turnout continues to increase, straining election systems anew.

Raffensperger, a Republican who serves as the state’s top election official, sees the lines at some locations as evidence of high turnout and an active electorate. He said that counters the narrative that voters are struggling to have their votes counted.

He and other Republicans dismiss charges of suppression, saying it’s a false narrative at a time when Georgians have more access and more people are voting than ever. But voting rights advocates say even if suppression isn’t intentional, no one should be denied the ability to cast a ballot.

“There are those who attack and undermine our work through their disinformation efforts online and through the media,” Raffensperger said during a press conference Monday. “They are wrong, and the numbers prove it. It has never been easier to vote in the state of Georgia.”

Voters wait to cast their ballot during the first day of early voting at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Georgia closed at least 214 polling places between 2012 and 2018 while the state also added nearly 2 million voters. The result: more voters in fewer polling places. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Long waits to vote

Voting rights advocates worry that Georgia’s long lines in early voting could be a precursor to a much larger meltdown on Election Day.

In June, long lines during the primary again focused the country’s attention on problems with Georgia’s election system. It was well after midnight when the last voter cast her ballot.

She was wearing her medical scrubs from work and had waited in line with her daughter for over four hours, taking breaks to sit in a foldable chair they had brought along.

“She said, ‘Whew, they made us work for it this year,’ ” recalled Wanda Mosley, a state coordinator with the Black Voters Matter Fund, who was observing the long lines that finally ended at 12:40 a.m. outside Christian City Welcome Center in Union City.

As in Union City, many of the locations with the longest lines were polling places where Black voters are concentrated. Those voters had to wait longer at voting locations packed with too many voters and undertrained poll workers, according to an AJC analysis. About 61% of majority Black voting sites closed on time, compared with 80% of mostly white locations.

Some of the problems were caused by the pandemic, but others can be attributed to actions that policymakers and election officials took in recent years.

At least 214 polling places closed across Georgia between 2012 and 2018, according to a previous AJC analysis. County elections offices have been free to shut down precincts without needing federal approval since 2013, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision weakened the Voting Rights Act’s oversight requirements.

As voting locations declined, Georgia’s voting population rose by nearly 2 million in that period. A recent report by Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica found those new voters were crowded into existing polling places, increasing the likelihood of crowds, lines and waits.

Voters in nonwhite neighborhoods were more likely to experience longer lines because they’ve experienced the most growth in population and voter registrations, without additional polling places, the GPB/ProPublica report found. The average number of voters packed into voting locations in nine metro Atlanta counties grew by nearly 40% since 2012, to about 3,600 per polling place.

All-time highs in turnout, expected to exceed 5 million this November, don’t necessarily mean that voting access is readily available, said Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a civil rights group. It just means that voters are dedicated this election to overcoming barriers that stand in their way.

“All of us should be able to exercise our rights without having to jump through hoops,” Butler said. “No one should have to stand in line for four, eight or 12 hours to exercise their right to vote.”

If voters get stuck in line for more than 30 minutes, county election officials can use emergency paper ballots to keep voting moving, according to a rarely used State Election Board rule that requires supplies of enough emergency ballots to accommodate 10% of registered voters.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute at New York University, has taken out ads on social media to urge Georgia to better prepare for technical failures. The center said more emergency ballots should be kept in reserve at polling places to prevent a potential disaster on Election Day.

Gwinnett County residents wait in line to cast their ballots on the second day of early voting at the county's Voter Registration and Elections building in Lawrenceville. In Georgia, 1.7 million voters have requested absentee ballots, but thousands who requested ballots went ahead and voted in person, some out of concern that U.S. Postal Service delays could prevent their ballots from arriving by the Election Day deadline, or that some other technicality could cause them to be disenfranchised. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Missing absentee ballots

The concerns about voting during the pandemic and uncertainties about Election Day have resulted in a record-breaking push for mail-in balloting across the country.

In Georgia, 1.7 million voters have requested absentee ballots, and more than 872,000 voters had returned them through Thursday, according to state election officials. An additional 1.4 million people had voted in person.

The sheer volume of absentee voters has put additional stress on local election offices in the 159 counties across Georgia. Some have had to create separate teams to manage all the absentee applications and ballots coming into their offices.

Some voters had to wait weeks after sending in their application to receive a ballot, and others are still waiting.

“Some voters just never received their ballots, so we have reissued many of those ballots,” said Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron, who said overall the absentee process has gone well.

Thousands of voters who requested ballots went ahead and voted in person, some out of concern that U.S. Postal Service delays could prevent their ballots from arriving by the Election Day deadline, or that some other technicality could cause them to be disenfranchised.

Fulton alone has canceled more than 22,000 ballot applications from people who decided to vote in person. The cancellation process can add to wait times at polling locations.

Overseas voters have also reported problems in Georgia.

Julia Bryan, the global chair for Democrats Abroad, which helps ensure overseas voters can cast their ballots, said Georgia is one of the states where they receive the highest number of complaints.

Bryan said some 30 states allow overseas voters some way to return their ballot electronically, but not Georgia. Most complaints come from voters who have had trouble registering or receiving their ballot. There’s also concern from some overseas voters that their ballot won’t arrive in Georgia in time.

“Georgia is one of our most challenging states,” Bryan said.

Cayci Chesnut, who lives in Amsterdam, nearly missed her chance to vote. She originally requested a ballot from Fulton County in June, but she never received confirmation via email that it was received. After calling Fulton election officials twice last week, she learned that the wrong email address had been entered into the system. Fulton re-sent her ballot by email, which is permitted for overseas voters, and she mailed it back the next day.

“You would think they would double-check all those spellings very carefully, especially since my name is clearly written multiple times on that form," she said.

Voters in the United States have also struggled to cast absentee ballots.

In Georgia, a federal judge had extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be returned to county elections offices by three days, ordering them to be accepted if postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by Nov. 6.

But that decision was overturned earlier this month on an appeal that was backed by the Republican National Committee and the Georgia Republican Party. Raffensperger applauded that decision, saying Georgia election officials have made it easier than ever to meet the deadline through drop boxes placed in every county and a new absentee ballot request website.

Still, the court decision will likely mean thousands of absentee ballots won’t be counted if they arrive after the 7 p.m. deadline on Nov. 3. During the primary in June, election officials rejected more than 8,000 ballots received after election day.

Brendan Taliaferro has struggled to get his absentee ballot this election cycle.

Credit: submitted

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Credit: submitted

Brendan Taliaferro hopes he’s not among those disenfranchised.

Taliaferro is 23 and has bounced around in various states for work since he graduated from college. His permanent address is at his parents’ home in Gwinnett County, where he is registered to vote. When he tried to get his absentee ballot sent to New York, it never arrived. He got through to a worker at the Gwinnett election office, who said he could vote in person or provide another ballot application.

Taliaferro is hopeful it will arrive in time for him to return his vote by the deadline — Election Day.

He views his struggles to vote as emblematic of “how systemic and subliminal voter suppression can be.”

“It is very frustrating,” he said. “I don’t want to be part of the cliche of young people that don’t exercise their voice. At the same time, there’s a reasonable limitation for what I have to do to vote.”

Khyati Sehgal gets her paperwork before casting her vote in Gwinnett on October 23, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

His friend Khyati Sehgal also struggled to get her absentee ballot. After two tries, she gave up and is flying back from New York to cast her ballot in person in Gwinnett.

“I feel like I’m having to play detective," she said. “It’s infuriating, and I’m a stubborn person. I’m going to vote."

How Georgia stacks up

Georgia’s civil rights history makes it a focal point over voting rights. It also frustrates many who see today’s challenges fitting into the longer struggle.

“The issues we’re confronting now are not new or unforeseeable,” said Harold Franklin with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which uses the legal system to oppose discriminatory election practices. “There should have been measures put in place to prevent them from happening.”

Some changes did come after Georgia’s contentious governor’s race two years ago. Democrat Stacey Abrams lost by 55,000 votes to Republican Brian Kemp, who served as secretary of state while running for governor. Abrams, who refused to concede two years ago, citing barriers to voting, said Georgia voters still have to work hard to overcome obstacles.

“This is a battleground. People know they have to fight to win,” said Abrams, whose organization Fair Fight Action has made advocating for voting rights in Georgia and across the country its signature issue.

Georgia’s evolving voting laws create a mix of policies that limit or enhance voting access.

A law known as “exact match,” which held up 53,000 voter registrations often because of spelling discrepancies, was repealed last year. The state’s paperless voting system was replaced.

Absentee ballot rejections have declined, and election officials now more quickly notify voters and give them time to correct issues.

The state has photo ID requirements but also automatic voter registration. Hundreds of thousands of dormant voter registrations have been canceled even as the state’s voter rolls recently reached a high-water mark of 7.6 million.

One study by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization, listed Georgia as one of nine states with high flexibility to encourage safe voter participation during the coronavirus pandemic. Georgia has automatic voter registration, three weeks of early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.

While Georgia scored moderately well across the board, it didn’t allow Election Day voter registration, extend the early voting period or permit absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted, said Jennifer Kavanagh, a political scientist and co-author of the report.

Another report ranked Georgia No. 49 in the nation when evaluating the costs the state puts on voting, including early registration deadlines and polling place closures, according to the 2020 Cost of Voting Index.

“Just because it’s record turnout doesn’t mean it’s at the level it should be for a healthy democracy,” said Michael Pomante, a Jacksonville University political science professor and co-author of the study.

Coming Monday

A new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll will give you a look at the state of the presidential and U.S. Senate races in Georgia and tell you what issues helped shape voters' decisions.