Thousands of Georgia voters waited for up to seven hours in lines that stretched blocks during the state’s primary election on Tuesday, and many left before voting.
The state’s new voting machines did not work, because of either mechanical failure or poor training of poll workers. Many voters came to wait in line after failing to receive absentee ballots they requested to avoid the in-person threat of coronavirus. And many voters left the lines without having cast their ballots.
The worst problems were concentrated in counties and localities with higher Black populations.
Even for a state marred by a recent history of malice and incompetence in its administration of elections, Tuesday’s election was a calamity. It was neither free nor fair, critics said.
The election drew national attention as former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted that Georgia’s failure was “voter suppression.”
“Many Republicans don’t want certain people to vote,” former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted. And L.A. Lakers star LeBron James asked whether it revealed “structurally racist” barriers to voting.
“Yesterday was completely avoidable,” said Nse Ufot, executive director for the New Georgia Project. “It was a direct attack on our democracy.”
“Maybe the Carter Center should send monitors to monitor Georgia elections,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, referencing the organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter that monitors foreign elections.
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are expected to be competitive in Georgia in the general election. The state is also in the rare position of holding races to fill two U.S. Senate seats, either one of which could decide which party holds the balance of power in that body.
If the problems revealed on Tuesday recur on Nov. 3, it could throw the entire country into chaos.
The state’s primary election was one of many across the country that have revealed the challenges of holding elections during a viral pandemic, which may remain an obstacle for the November general election.
As have many other states, Georgia consolidated polling places and urged voters to request an absentee ballot. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger even sent absentee ballot applications to all active voters.
An unprecedented 1.5 million Georgians requested absentee ballots. But thousands did not receive their ballots or had other problems and instead went in person to the limited number of open polling sites.
And Georgia experienced problems that other states have not while trying to adjust to the effects of the pandemic. At some polling sites, voting machines had not even been delivered by the time the polls were supposed to open. At others, unprepared poll workers could not turn them on. And there were too few provisional ballots for voters who suddenly learned their names had been purged from the rolls. Others discovered that they were no longer listed as U.S. citizens.
“We received tons of calls from voters around the state reflecting, frankly, chaos,” said John Powers, voting rights counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Voting rights advocates said on Wednesday that their concerns about these exact problems had been relayed to Raffensperger and county election administrators prior to the election.
“We urged the secretary of state’s office to change election procedures that would have had a huge impact on yesterday’s elections,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.
Raffensperger and administrators in the counties that saw the worst problems on Tuesday ― including Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Fulton counties ― blamed each other for what happened.
Raffensperger announced an investigation into the election administration in Fulton and DeKalb counties. DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, meanwhile, called for an investigation into Raffensperger’s own election preparations.
“Instead of leading in this moment, the secretary of state’s office decided to use the kind of finger-pointing that cowards use,” said James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP.
Other advocates called for Raffensperger and county election officials to either resign or be fired.
“The secretary of state needs to resign,” Ufot said. “The director of elections for Fulton County should resign or be terminated.”
“I also think our secretary of state should resign in disgrace,” Gonzalez said.
Even before Tuesday’s debacle, Georgia was in the spotlight for its recent history of voter suppression and malicious election administration.
The state closed more than 200 polling locations, mostly in Black and brown communities, after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. That led to long lines snaking out of voting centers in Black neighborhoods.
Voting rights advocates are calling for lawmakers to oppose that bill and also for the secretary of state’s office to extend the deadline by which absentee ballots can be returned; provide prepaid postage for absentee ballot return envelopes; offer better training and adequate personal protective equipment for poll workers; and implement a new communications strategy to inform voters about absentee ballot drop boxes and polling locations, among other things.
“This cannot happen in November,” said Helen Butler, Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda executive director. “We’ve got to do those changes. We’ve got to train the poll workers better. We’ve got to ensure our election officials do their job with the proper planning they should have done. We will not tolerate the same things that happened yesterday.”
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