Extreme voting lines expose where Georgia primary failed

Turnout and coronavirus kept voters waiting for hours, especially in Black communities

The last polling place in Georgia closed well after midnight.

Voters had waited over five hours at Christian City, an assisted living community south of Atlanta. The line twisted far down the street, the most egregious example of extreme delays to participate in Georgia’s troubled primary.

A new trove of elections data shows which voting locations stayed open late, highlighting where voters suffered the longest lines at Georgia’s 2,300 polling places. The secretary of state’s office reported the information to county election officials so they can make improvements before November’s high-turnout presidential election.

About 11% of voting sites in Georgia closed over an hour late, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the elections data. The epicenter of voting problems was Fulton County, where more than three-quarters of polling places closed after 8 p.m.

Black voters bore the brunt of long lines and late closings in overcrowded, understaffed and poorly equipped polling places. Only 61% of majority Black precincts closed on time compared with 80% of mostly white precincts, the AJC’s analysis found.

Georgia’s election day was a debacle created by the coronavirus pandemic, high turnout and difficulties operating new voting computers. Precincts closed, poll workers quit and social-distancing restrictions limited the number of people who could vote at a time.

While voting went smoothly in some neighborhoods, others reported a stressful ordeal where voters struggled to get to the front of the line — and sometimes gave up without casting a ballot.

“I had never seen anything like it in my life. It was unacceptable,” said Hiara Imara, who works in public health and waited almost two hours at the McGhee Tennis Center in southwest Atlanta. “It’s almost like they were set up to fail.”

Just one voting machine out of five was working when Imara’s precinct opened June 9, she said. The delays endured throughout the day, and the McGhee Tennis Center finally checked in its last voter close to 9 p.m., two hours later than when polls were scheduled to close.

Election officials will have to make changes to avoid similar problems in November’s general election, when in-person turnout is expected to be three times higher.

They need to add precincts and well-trained poll workers, said Gabriel Sterling, the voting implementation manager for the secretary of state’s office.

“Nobody should have to stand in line that long, and the counties and the state are working together to make sure every voter, regardless of ZIP code, has a smooth voting experience,” Sterling said. “What you want to avoid is having too many voters in a polling location. The way you can do that is having more voting locations and spreading people out.”

The secretary of state’s office compiled the data on polling place opening, closing and check-in times, then distributed it to county governments so they can evaluate what changes are needed, Sterling said.

County election officials could manage the load if they distributed voters among enough voting sites with adequate staffing, he said. Problems with voting computers occurred when replacement poll workers, hired at the last minute, didn’t know how to start them up.

Too many voters assigned to one location inevitably led to lines.

For example, precinct closures forced 2,300 election day voters into a makeshift precinct at Park Tavern in Piedmont Park in Midtown Atlanta. Over 300 people lined up before the polling place opened, a queue that took until nearly 10 p.m. to clear.

Before November, Fulton County plans to increase its number of voting sites from 164 in June to between 210 and 240, spokeswoman Regina Waller said. The county is also increasing its election day staff.

“The loss of poll workers and polling places had a cascade effect across the system. Both were due to the pandemic sweeping the state and country,” Waller said. “As we move toward this vital general election, we are confident that the increased training of poll workers, restructuring of polling sites and implementation of social distancing and other precautions will ensure a positive experience for all voters.”

High turnout doesn’t fully explain why voters in mostly Black communities experienced longer waits.

Majority Black polling places with significant turnout — more than 400 voters — closed an average of 49 minutes later than smaller precincts, according to the AJC’s analysis. By comparison, similar locations with mostly white voters closed just four minutes later.

Poor planning by election officials, lack of equipment and too few precincts could explain why Black voters were worse off in the primary, said Helen Butler, the executive director for the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a civil rights group.

“The facts speak for themselves: It happens in our communities, and we’ve got to demand that it doesn’t happen that way,” said Butler, a member of the elections board in Morgan County. “They need to look at different kinds of facilities and not packing people in.”

Election officials tend to provide more poll workers and voting computers in majority white precincts, according to a 2017 study by Stephen Pettigrew, the director of data sciences at the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies.

“It’s hard to come up with a reasonable story of why there might be these disparities and line lengths if it isn’t about resources,” Pettigrew said. “It comes down to that reality.”

Data about voting location capacity and equipment distribution in Georgia’s primary wasn’t yet available.

Smaller precincts can’t handle the load of even a few hundred voters, as seen at the late-closing Christian City location in Union City.

Social-distancing limitations created lines when only four voters were allowed inside at a time, Waller said. There were 642 voters throughout the day at the Christian City facility, but the last voter there wasn’t checked in until 12:21 a.m. The county is reducing the number of voters assigned to that location.

At the Lang Carson Recreation Center in Reynoldstown, Celine Bufkin said she waited 4 1/2 hours to vote. That was long enough for nearby residents to bake a batch of cookies for waiting voters and hand them out. The recreation center finally closed at 9:37 p.m.

“There were way too many people for too few machines,” said Bufkin, a wine seller. “We need more experienced, more proactive and more efficient poll workers, too. I always vote in person, and I’ve never seen it that bad.”

Latest closing voting locations in Georgia

Christian City Welcome Center, Fulton County, 12:21 a.m.

Flakes Mill Fire Station, DeKalb County, 11:57 p.m.

Beulah Missionary Baptist Church, DeKalb County, 10:59 p.m.

Louise Watley Library in southeast Atlanta, Fulton County, 10:59 p.m.

New Life Presbyterian Church, Fulton County, 10:40 p.m.

Bear Creek Middle School, Fulton County, 10:32 p.m.

Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, DeKalb County, 10:29 p.m.

Central Park Recreation Center, Fulton County, 10:24 p.m.

Morris Brandon Primary Center School, Fulton County, 10:19 p.m.

Haynes Bridge Middle School, Fulton County, 10:18 p.m.

Source: Georgia secretary of state’s office

How to vote in Georgia’s Aug. 11 primary runoff

In-person early voting is underway at voting locations across Georgia through Aug. 7.

Any registered voter is also eligible to request an absentee ballot, allowing them to vote from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Neighborhood precincts will be open as usual on election day Aug. 11.

Voters can find early voting locations, request absentee ballots and find their precincts on the state’s My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.