If election officials in Georgia and Wisconsin wanted to prove one thing during primary and runoff elections Tuesday, it was that they could do a better job managing lines, operating equipment and counting mail ballots than they did in earlier contests this year.
They appeared to succeed, with voters trickling in to the polls with virtually no wait times and election workers processing a crush of absentee ballots with no major difficulties.
“We all saw the stories in April, and we all decided that can’t happen again,” said Dori Frankel Steigman, a poll worker at Barack Obama High School in Milwaukee, one of 170 polling locations open on Tuesday, compared with just five for the state’s April 7 spring primary.
Tuesday’s contests in both states, as well as in Connecticut, Minnesota and Vermont, drew much lower turnout than previous elections this year, a contributor to the relative quiet. But state and local officials said the bigger factor was what they learned from their earlier stumbles – and how they used the intervening weeks to avoid them this time.
“We have taken the time to make sure that so many people have had access to the vote, whether it be in person, three weeks of early voting, or absentee voting by mail,” said Jordan Fuchs, Georgia’s deputy secretary of state.
Election officials warned that Tuesday’s successes are no guarantee that Nov. 3, when tens of millions more voters are expected to turn out, will unfold as smoothly. It also was too early to say how long various counties would take to complete their count of mail ballots, and what that might signal about the fall.
Additionally, voters also may grow warier of voting by mail between now and November, with recent reports of controversial changes at the U.S. Postal Service causing delivery delays in some states. That could put additional pressure on in-person voting.
Still, what emerged Tuesday was a portrait of state and local election officials working furiously to prepare for a high-interest election during a pandemic – doing their best, in some ways, to prove wrong the predictions that Nov. 3 could be a disaster.
Georgia and Wisconsin, in particular, rolled out new safeguards to avoid the chaos of primaries earlier this year in those two states, voting exercises that were marked by polling place closures, poll worker no-shows and equipment difficulties for staffers not properly trained amid fears of coronavirus infection.
In Georgia, a high-profile runoff for district attorney drew strong interest in the Atlanta area, where, during the June primary, many voters did not receive mail ballots, poll workers struggled to operate new machines and voters waited in hours-long lines.
“Back in June, the covid-19 got to everything,” said Regina Waller, a spokeswoman for Fulton County, Ga. “We weren’t fully prepared. We lost sites, we lost workers because of it. This time we’re prepared.”
On Tuesday, one of the hardest-hit precincts in the June primary, Park Tavern in midtown Atlanta, had no wait times. “I’m surprised I’m the first one here,” said Sarah Andrews, 42, a technician who trains machine operators and who voted at Park Tavern just after polls opened. “I came here early, thinking there would lines.”
Fulton County also set up a cavernous ballot-counting facility at State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. Beneath high-hanging basketball hoops, about 70 election workers sat two to a table and followed a three-step process for each ballot, creating stacks for the outer and inner envelopes as well as the ballots themselves. Ralph Jones, Fulton’s registration chief, said the crew had processed 20,000 ballots by Monday, with 10,000 expected by the end of Tuesday.
“Everything has been running smoothly,” he said.
Across Georgia, counties had received 238,000 absentee ballots by the end of Monday, with more expected to trickle in Tuesday.
A similar office space in Milwaukee hosted that city’s central ballot-counting operation. About 200 masked and distanced workers assembled under fluorescent lights to begin processing all ballots cast early, whether by mail or in person.
Aside from the steady whir of election scanners reading ballots, the work was quiet and efficient, with workers raising a hand when they encountered a problem and observers from both major parties watching from a distance, ready to challenge ballot rejections. By midmorning, very few ballots had been rejected, said Democratic observer Mike DeBruin.
“I’m impressed by what I’m seeing,” DeBruin said. Two Democrats and three Republicans were on hand; the Republicans, who appeared to be college-age, said they were not authorized to comment.
Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said “all reports are that things are going smoothly” in the counting absentee ballots, adding: “I’m confident we’ll be successful processing them all today” and have results by Tuesday night.
Anxiety about in-person voting was on display at Lyndale Community School in south Minneapolis, where a group of six voters – all wearing masks, some in plastic gloves – stood silently and physically distanced in the glow of the early morning sun on a sidewalk outside the building.
First in line was a married couple – Mike Wisti, 54, a musician, and his wife, Norah Labiner, 50, a novelist. They said they had rarely left their house since covid-19 put much of the state on lockdown in April and remained concerned about becoming ill, especially because of a recent spike in cases.
“This is actually my first time out,” Labiner said.
In Connecticut, state officials said power outages brought on by Hurricane Isaias caused significant mail delays last week, which in turn threatened the eligibility of 20,000 ballots mailed to voters just last Tuesday. Officials urged voters to deposit their ballots in drop boxes rather than in the mail, and on Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, issued an executive order calling for all ballots to be counted so long as they are postmarked by Tuesday and received by Thursday. Current law requires ballots to be received by Election Day.
Across the states, the volume of mail balloting has been like nothing election officials have seen in comparable prior elections. Minnesota reported that about 645,000 absentee ballots had been requested as of Monday, compared with 34,660 in 2016 – a “tidal wave,” according to Secretary of State Steve Simon. In Connecticut, the number was 300,000 – a first in the state, which opened up mail balloting to all voters for the first time this year in response to the pandemic.
“There’s no historical data to compare it to,” said Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill. “Even if we did, it would be comparing apples to skyscrapers.”
Those numbers came amid growing evidence that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote by mail this year. In a Wisconsin survey released Tuesday by Marquette University Law School, 81 percent of likely voters planning to cast mail ballots support Democrat Joe Biden, while just 14 percent support President Trump.
A second national survey released Tuesday by Monmouth University offered similar results, with 72 percent of registered Democrats saying they are very or somewhat likely to vote by mail this fall, compared with 22 percent of registered Republicans.
Wisconsin’s April 7 primary saw hours-long lines in larger cities including Milwaukee and Green Bay, as well as record requests for mail ballots. Wisconsin’s spring election also was complicated by legal actions and last-minute changes in election rules, such as the deadline for the receipt of mail ballots, which left many voters confused.
On Tuesday, however, Milwaukee was scheduled to open 170 polling locations, slightly down from its normal number of 180 – a vast improvement over the April 7 election, when just five locations opened. One reason for the improvement: Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, called up the National Guard to augment local election staffs across the state.
Similarly, during Georgia’s June 9 primary, an exodus of poll workers in Fulton County, home to Atlanta, prompted the closure or consolidation of roughly 40 polling places out of a total of about 200. The Park Tavern precinct experienced severe lines primarily because it served more than 16,000 voters – more than triple the usual number.
On Tuesday, all but a tiny handful of locations opened – and with none of the debilitating delays of June.
The Park Tavern precinct, for instance, was redivided among three voting locations.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger also worked with local governments to prepare for Tuesday. The state positioned hundreds of technicians at polling locations to ensure the proper functioning of new machines rolled out for the first time this election cycle, which many poll workers did not know how to use in June because of a lack of training.
Among the issues in June: Poll workers inserted electronic card readers into the machines the wrong way, and they thought power issues were to blame when machines did not switch on, when the real issue was that the power button needed to be pushed and held for five seconds.
Raffensperger’s office plans to help local officials label all machinery and electronic card readers in time for the November election, a spokesman said.
His office also discovered that many of the poll closures in Fulton occurred at public buildings, such as schools and firehouses, where officials deemed it unsafe to conduct elections because of the health crisis. But Georgia state law requires public buildings to make themselves available for elections – and local election officials are on notice to enforce that law on Tuesday and in November.
“A lot of the big-picture national headlines about the complete meltdown really just occurred in Fulton,” Fuchs said. “There were some minor issues throughout the state, but nothing compared to Fulton. So that’s a relief, and it means that it’s fixable.”
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Simmons reported from Milwaukee. The Washington Post’s Holly Bailey in Minneapolis, Ingrid Arnesen in Atlanta and Elise Viebeck, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.