Georgia runoffs improve from messy primary, with a few exceptions

Poll manager, Raphillia Edwards, right, swears in her poll worker team Tuesday at Park Tavern in Atlanta. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

A low-turnout runoff election made for an easy experience for most Georgians casting ballots on Tuesday, but trouble operating new voting computers caused scattered problems.

Few voters had to wait in long lines. Poll workers were better trained. Technicians were on hand in every metro Atlanta voting location for troubleshooting.

The runoff was a sharp contrast to Georgia’s rough primary in June that kept some voters waiting in line for hours because of high turnout, social-distancing requirements, polling place closures and difficulties with voting equipment.

Still, several precincts stumbled to get started Tuesday when polling places opened their doors. In a major election — such as the presidential contest in November — those kinds of errors could have led to a disaster.

The runoff was another test of elections held during the coronavirus pandemic on new voting technology. Voters decided on candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Georgia General Assembly, school boards, district attorney offices and courts.

Poll workers prepare voters for the machines Tuesday at Magnolia Hall in Atlanta. Election officials said they learned lessons from the June 9 primary to avoid the kind of extreme lines that some voters encountered then. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Some poll workers struggled with Georgia’s voting system, which combines voter check-in tablets, touchscreens, ballot printers and scanners. In Floyd County, voting locations opened late because poll workers’ access cards didn’t work and they couldn’t start voting machines.

At Israel Baptist Church in Kirkwood, Alexis Gilmer waited over an hour and a half Tuesday morning because the polling place lacked voter access cards. When the cards finally arrived, some didn’t work.

“We care enough to vote. I’d like the system to care for us, too,” said Gilmer, a business consultant. “People have to work. They can’t wait in line all day. People will walk out or get discouraged.”

Then when DeKalb County poll workers tried to give Gilmer an emergency paper ballot, they didn’t have a key to unlock them from storage. Gilmer was finally able to cast her ballot on a touchscreen when an elections supervisor arrived.

The problems in Floyd County appeared to be spread across the county, when many poll workers weren’t able to log into voting computers to get them running, said Robert Brady, the county’s chief clerk of elections. Polls stayed open two hours later to accommodate voters affected by the morning issue.

“I’ve been busy putting out wildfires,” Brady said. “Once all of the equipment was brought online, it has been smooth sailing.”

Ryan Fetter casts his ballot Tuesday during the election runoff at Flat Shoals Elementary School in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Voters across the Atlanta area said they were relieved Tuesday after they waited for hours during the June 9 primary.

“The line was unbelievable. I was in the hot sun for over two hours,” Kaywanda Smoot, recalling the problems in June, said after casting her ballot Tuesday at the Louise Watley Library in southeast Atlanta. “We need a larger venue. We need more machines. We need more people to volunteer.”

Some Fulton County voters, such as Hershey Millner, said they had the same problems with receiving absentee ballots for the runoff as they did before the primary.

“I’m worried about November,” Millner, a graduate student at Georgia State University, said after voting at Fanplex across from the old Braves stadium in downtown Atlanta. “I had requested an absentee but didn’t get it. It’s concerning to me.”

At Piedmont Park in Midtown, the site of waits exceeding three hours during the primary, voters were able to walk right in to vote.

During the primary, over 300 voters were in line before the Park Tavern polling place opened. On Tuesday, no one was waiting for the doors to open at 7 a.m.

“They have a system in place after what happened last time,” said Jacob Griswell, who works in production and waited 2 1/2 hours at Park Tavern in June. “They need to keep these practices going and continue training. They need to have more voting machines.”

Gwinnett County poll manager Don Heaton, left, speaks with assistant poll manager Bob Portnoy during Georgia primary runoff elections Tuesday at Norcross High School. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

At Cross Keys High School in DeKalb County, the site of major meltdowns in June, poll workers and voters described an effortless voting process this time.

“I came early just in case there was a rush,” Ashley Townes said. “It was simple, easy and fast. The staff was great and they sanitized everything.”

Voters reported a few minor issues in other locations.

At Berean Baptist Church in Lilburn, poll workers set up check-in computers incorrectly, and three voters had to be issued emergency paper ballots, Gwinnett County spokesman Joe Sorenson said.

In Macon, two polling places stayed open a half-hour late because of difficulties working voter check-in computers, said Mike Kaplan, the nonpartisan chairman of the Macon Board of Elections.

“It should be smooth,” Kaplan said. “If it’s not, we’re never going to get it right in November.”

Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Sarah Kallis contributed to this article.

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