Some voters in Georgia are experiencing hourslong lines to cast their ballots in Tuesday’s primary, with officials trading blame for who, exactly, is responsible for the latest trip-up in holding an election during the pandemic.
Since polls opened early Tuesday morning, voters in Georgia — especially in and around Atlanta — have reported problems with voting machines and long lines, with some voters leaving without casting a ballot. The problems are a troubling sign for the burgeoning swing state’s ability to handle the expected high turnout for November’s presidential election.
“We’ve received reports about long lines, polling sites that have opened late and broken machines,” Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said. The Lawyers’ Committee maintains a national voter protection hotline. “What’s disturbing is that these problems appear widespread, and not isolated.”
“It has been most disturbing to hear about voters who have given up. Voters who were not able to withstand the long wait times, voters who had one shot this morning,” she added. “Those are people who may be flatly disenfranchised.”
“It’s a hot, flaming, f—ing mess,” Nse Ufot, executive director of New Georgia Project, said in a text Tuesday. At multiple sites in Fulton County, new voting machines were down, some sites were waiting for technical support and others had difficulty logging into the machines, Ufot said.
New Georgia Project, which mobilizes young voters of color in Georgia, is tracking voter experiences and reports from their organizers at polling sites through their election protection app.
Counties across the state have sought extensions to keep polls open later. Chatham County, which includes Savannah, is keeping three dozen precincts open until 9 p.m. All voting locations in Fulton County will be open until 9 p.m. after a judge’s orders.
Muscogee County, which includes Columbus, got a judge’s approval to keep polling places open until 9 p.m. due to “technical problems at polling sites” that have since been resolved.
Georgia is just the latest state that has seen widespread problems with holding an election during a pandemic. Longer than usual lines have been reported in cities across the country, with many forced to shutter some polling locations because of a lack of staffing. In order to comply with social distancing guidelines, many sites also have fewer voting machines or booths and require more voters to wait outside to avoid indoor crowds.
It took LaTosha Brown three hours to vote at her polling site in Atlanta. Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said it took her nephew six hours to vote on Friday during early voting hours.
“We have got to stop making voting a traumatic damn experience for black voters. Everything has to be a traumatic experience,” said Brown. “The secretary of state needs to resign. … They always blame it on local officials.”
Brown said she drove to a predominantly white polling place in the suburbs of Atlanta after leaving her voting site Monday and was near tears as she saw no line, and people easily walking in and out. “I come over to this side of town, and white folks are strolling in,” said Brown. “On my side of town, we brought stadium chairs.”
Georgia is one of a slew of Southern states that have closed a significant number of polling sites over the past seven years. Georgia has closed roughly 5 percent of polling places since the Supreme Court invalidated protections against discrimination under the Voting Rights Act.
The 2018 gubernatorial election, in which saw Republican then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp face off against Stacey Abrams, was also fraught with accusations of improper administration. Kemp’s office purged more than 500,000 voters from the rolls in 2017, with election experts at the time saying it was likely the largest such move in American history.
“Being told line is out to the street at Sandtown Recreation Center and their machines are not working either,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, tweeted Tuesday, tagging Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger. “This seems to be happening throughout Atlanta and perhaps throughout the county. People have been in line since before 7:00 am this morning.”
But Raffensperger’s office placed the blame on local officials — particularly in two majority-minority counties in and around Atlanta — not the voting machines. Georgia bought some 30,000 new voting machines for 2020 to address election security concerns.
In a statement, Raffensperger said the “voting situation today in certain precincts in Fulton and DeKalb counties is unacceptable,” and he added that his office has “opened an investigation to determine what these counties need to do to resolve these issues before November’s election.” He said other counties were “better prepared.”
DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, a Democrat, fired back that “if there was a failure of leadership, it starts where the buck should stop: at the top,” saying the problems rested at Raffensperger’s feet. Gabriel Sterling, the statewide voting implementation manager, said in a statement circulated by Raffensperger’s office that “that training poll workers and equipping polling places is a responsibility that Georgia law places squarely on the county,” in response to Thurmond.
“The state and the counties and the legislature seem to be having a ping-pong, triangular blame game … But we can do better down here. We need to do better down here,” Aunna Dennis, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said. “This has been a trainwreck today that we anticipated … [and] the folks who are hurt at the end of the day are the voters.”
And amid the problematic in-person voting, the state is also undergoing a massive expansion in mail-in balloting. Raffensperger’s office mailed active voters in the state a ballot request form, and as of Monday a record 943,000 Georgians returned their absentee ballot. He said that typically, around 40,000 voters vote by mail, a well over 20-fold increase. Absentee ballots that are returned by the time polls close on Election Day will count.
“We were able to stand up a very robust absentee ballot program,” Raffensperger said in an interview with POLITICO on Monday, prior to Tuesday’s events. “Typically, 7 percent of all Georgians vote absentee. This year, it’ll probably be well north of 75 percent.”
With the heavy mail balloting, Raffensperger projected that anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 people could vote in person on Tuesday. Some voters said they never received an absentee ballot that they requested, which may drive additional people to polling places. The secretary of state’s office said earlier this week they were investigating that problem.
Raffensperger has not committed to mailing absentee request forms to voters for the general election in November, when the presidential race and the state’s two Senate seats will be on the ballot, as he did for Tuesday’s primary.
Georgia is one of the five states holding primary elections on Tuesday, joining Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina and West Virginia. The state’s presidential primary was postponed from late March and consolidated with primaries for other offices, which were originally scheduled for May.
Reporting results could stretch long into the night on Tuesday. Raffensperger said the state will not start releasing results until “each and every precinct has closed, and every voter has voted,” meaning long lines in the evening at one polling place could delay results for hours.
“We’re just asking everyone to be patient,” he said. “It’s going to take a little bit longer than normal, but it is important that we get accurate results, so you don’t have misinformation out there.”
Eric Geller contributed to this report.