Georgia primary meltdown: What went wrong – and does it foreshadow November's election?

Fewer polling locations, a new voting system, machine malfunctions, and the pandemic all played a part in the chaos

 

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Wednesday 10 June 2020 21:01
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Stacey Abrams discusses primary polling chaos in Georgia

With waits that dragged on for hours to cast a ballot, voting machines that did not work, inadequately trained staff, extended polling times, and claims of voter suppression — all against the backdrop of the pandemic — Georgia’s primary election has been described as “chaos” and a “hot mess”. Predominantly minority counties were especially hard hit.

On Wednesday morning, 24 hours after the polls opened, while votes were still being counted, an investigation into what happened had been promised.

Worried questions are now being asked as to what the implications might be for the presidential election in November.

These worries are heightened given the key role that Georgia could play as a battleground state. Could a maelstrom of ineptitude, voter suppression and inadequate preparation wreak havoc on the outcome of the election? And might these scenes be repeated in other swing states?

So, what factors were in play in Georgia on Tuesday?

Polling locations

In spite of the obvious logistical problems of holding a primary election in the middle of a global pandemic, 90 per cent of polling places across Georgia were open — a larger percentage than in other states that recently held primaries.

The problem is that overall there are far fewer places to cast a ballot than there once were. Since the 2013 Supreme Court decision on Shelby County vs The Voting Rights Act gutted the aforementioned legislation, Georgia has closed 214 polling places. Of that total, 80 were in the metropolitan Atlanta area, where the vast majority of African American voters in the state live.

Fewer polling places equals longer lines (before even considering social distancing), which equals longer wait times. Stories have emerged of people waiting in line for hours, determined to cast their vote, but also of others having to give up and go home or back to work.

The new voting system

After accusations of voter suppression in the 2018 election for lieutenant governor in which tens of thousands of votes appeared to electronically go missing, Georgia ordered new voting equipment.

Provided by Dominion Voting Systems, the new equipment reintroduced paper ballots, but the interface as seen by the voter remained a touch screen. A printout would then be created in order to corroborate the electronic result. These could be checked by voters before they are deposited into ballot scanners.

The company had to install 30,000 machines before 24 March, the original date of the primary, in the largest roll out of election equipment in US history, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports.

There will always be teething problems with any new system, but reports came in of machines having issues booting up, late delivery of some equipment, trouble with ballot printers, apparently stemming from a lack of training due to the pandemic, and even ballot shortages. In other cases, the machines just did not work, according to reports.

These malfunctions, whether user-related or technical failures led to even longer waits for voters, with the problem seemingly exacerbated in the Atlanta area. In some places it delayed the opening of the polls.

Absentee ballots

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic pushed mail-in ballots into the national conversation as a safer way to exercise democratic rights. This has been particularly important during the primary season, and could play a vital role in the November election.

While Donald Trump has been stoking fears about voting by mail, despite him and his family doing so on several occasions, as well as many active duty military personnel, Georgia has encouraged the practice.

The state mailed an application to every person on the active voter rolls, and there was a huge uptake in the option to vote remotely.

As of Monday 943,000 Georgia residents had returned an absentee ballot — 20 times the normal amount and likely to constitute more than 75 per cent of the total vote, according to Politico.

If this practice is to continue in November, much greater investment is needed to process the ballots.

What happened next?

With all these problems, and what appears to have been a healthy turnout for a primary, many polling places extended voting hours well into the evening. A total of 20 counties permitted extended voting beyond the usual 7pm deadline.

Fulton, Muscogee and Chatham Counties (which include Atlanta, Columbus and Savannah) were open until 9pm, and DeKalb County until after 10pm.

The long lines of voters snaked around parking lots and down streets, and those unable to stay had no choice but to give up, leaving them effectively disenfranchised.

Politico reports that it took LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, three hours to vote in Atlanta, and it took her nephew six hours. She later drove to a predominantly white neighbourhood and saw that there was no line and people were just walking in.

“On my side of town, we brought stadium chairs,” she said. Ms Brown also reported that at one polling place the last voter left at 12.37am on Wednesday.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms asked Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger on Twitter if the problems with voting were happening everywhere, or just in a heavily African American part of the city.

She also tweeted: "This seems to be happening throughout Atlanta and perhaps throughout the county. People have been in line since before 7:00 am this morning."

Basketball star LeBron James seeing the chaotic scenes of people trying to vote, tweeted: “Everyone talking about ‘how do we fix this?’ They say ‘go out and vote?’ What about asking if how we vote is also structurally racist?”

Who is to blame?

Much of the finger pointing is centred on Mr Raffensperger. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2018, said that the blame rests solely on his shoulders.

Ms Abrams cited voting irregularities when she refused to concede the race to be governor two years ago, and has since become a major voting rights advocate. Her Republican opponent, now-governor Brian Kemp, was secretary of state at the time.

Speaking on CBS This Morning on Wednesday, Ms Abrams said that Georgia has seen this before and that Tuesday was “the most egregious example.”

“It didn't simply happen in Democratic strongholds, it happened across the state. Because one of the problems with voter suppression, with the incompetence and malfeasance we see in the secretary of state's office in Georgia, is that while the target may be communities of colour ... it hits everyone,” says Ms Abrams. “The long lines happened mostly in the urban areas, but we had to see extensions in Democratic and Republican areas, including in the area represented by the Republican speaker of the house.”

She adds: “This is a complete meltdown and failure of the secretary of state's office.”

Mr Raffensperger for his part blames individual counties for the chaos as they are responsible for the running of polling sites and training of staff. However, it is his office’s responsibility to decide what training staff receive and how many machines go to each site.

“It’s really specifically in one or two counties, in Fulton and DeKalb counties, that had these issues today,” he told the Associated Press. “It has nothing to do with what we’re doing in the rest of Georgia.”

Ms Brown at Black Voters Matter disagrees. “We have got to stop making voting a traumatic damn experience for black voters. Everything has to be a traumatic experience,” she said. “The secretary of state needs to resign. ... They always blame it on local officials.”

Others directed blame outside of state, noting that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is holding up legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act that has been passed in the House of Representatives and could alleviate some of the systemic problems with voting.

What can be done by November?

November’s election will likely see record turnout, and Georgia will certainly be a key battleground state, becoming competitive for the first time in a generation.

Voting rights groups, including Ms Abrams’ Fair Fight Action, said Georgia’s experiences justify their efforts to combat what they describe as a coordinated Republican push to restrict ballot access.

Fair Fight, Priorities USA and American Bridge have announced a “Voter Suppression Watch” partnership.

Mr Raffensperger promised investigations of the handling of the primary in both Fulton and DeKalb counties.

David Ralston, the Republican speaker of Georgia’s state legislature, has called for an investigation of the entire primary process. He singled out Fulton County as “particularly” troubling.

With no time to swap out the voting system again, it is hoped that efforts can be made to better train and staff polling places, as well as ensure an adequate number of machines.

There are reports of many older people not willing to work during the pandemic out of fear for their health, and that is said to have left some locations understaffed.

Alarmingly, given the problems with in-person voting, the state has not yet committed to mailing absentee request forms to voters for the November election, which potentially means that a much greater number of people will have to vote in-person.

Both local and state officials, in Georgia and other battleground states, could find themselves in the national crosshairs if their election tallies leave the presidency in flux, as in Florida in 2000.

“I know that in these hyperpartisan times, half the people will be happy, and the other half will be sad,” Mr Raffensperger said. “But we want to make sure that 100% of people know ... the election was done fairly and we got the accurate count.”

As Ms Abrams pointed out, fair elections are vital for both Republicans and Democrats.

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