Lines snaked out the doors, poll workers struggled with new machines, and voters furiously demanded to know why so much had gone wrong in Georgia’s primaries on Tuesday, a potential preview of how the novel coronavirus pandemic and new voting technology could affect the presidential election in November.
Problems were concentrated in Atlanta and surrounding counties, where voters described standing in line for hours, with election officials processing paper ballots by hand painfully slowly because they could not get new touch-screen machines to work or they had not been delivered in time.
“She didn’t get to vote,” said Elton Harden, whose wife, Rita, had arrived at their polling place in Gwinnett County before 7 a.m. because she was scheduled for surgery later in the morning. Instead, they found a precinct with no machines.
“This is a way of discouraging people from voting,” said Harden, who is African American. “It’s unacceptable. If we’re going through this now, just think what November is going to be like.”
The chaos in Georgia offered another example of election troubles as states adjust their procedures in response to the pandemic. The problems could foreshadow significant challenges in November at a time of deepening partisanship around voting, with President Donald Trump and his GOP allies inaccurately attacking mail voting as prone to fraud.
At the Sandtown Park and Gymnasium west of downtown Atlanta, state Rep. Roger Bruce, a Democrat, distributed masks and folding chairs for voters waiting for more than three hours because of machine delays. Among the voters was Raney Branch, an actress who said she was appalled by the long wait. Branch said she and many acquaintances requested but never received absentee ballots, forcing her to appear in person.
“I stayed in line despite a three-hour-and-10-minute wait because my ancestors sacrificed too much for me to be stopped from exercising my right to vote,” said Branch, who is African American. “The volunteers told us they were not allowed to test the ballot machines before 7 a.m. How are people supposed to know the machines work if they can’t test them first? Makes no sense.”
As a result of the voting delays, several counties announced they would extend voting hours at multiple polling locations. Fulton County extended voting hours until 9 p.m. at all locations, and DeKalb County extended voting time to as late as 10:10 p.m.
A confluence of circumstances hit Georgia voters Tuesday.
Many new poll workers brought on to replace those who had bowed out because of fears of the virus were unfamiliar with new ballot-marking devices that were deployed statewide for the first time Tuesday, replacing a paperless electronic voting system that a federal judge had declared insecure. Even before the pandemic struck, election security experts had questioned whether officials had enough time to provide adequate training for their use in the primaries.
In addition, voting rights advocates said there was insufficient preparation for a surge in mail balloting and the overall shortage of poll workers because of the heath crisis, along with heightened interest in voting in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
The difficulties triggered outrage among voters, alarm about how Georgia would perform on Nov. 3, when far greater turnout is expected for the presidential election – as well as calls for more resources and investigations into what went wrong Tuesday.
The snarl of voting problems also revived long-standing complaints about the disenfranchisement of voters of color in the state, with many residents saying that predominantly African American communities appeared hardest hit.
Basketball star LeBron James took note of the chaos, tweeting: “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?”
The voting issues prompted partisan accusations about who was to blame, with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, faulting officials in heavily Democratic Fulton and DeKalb counties for not properly training poll workers on the new type of voting machine.
“Obviously, the first time a new voting system is used there is going to be a learning curve, and voting in a pandemic only increased these difficulties,” Raffensperger said in a midday statement. “But every other county faced these same issues and were significantly better prepared to respond so that voters had every opportunity to vote.”
Raffensperger said he would open an investigation of what went wrong in Fulton and Dekalb. In Fulton, many voters requested ballots by mail with plenty of time to spare – some last month – and still had not received them by Monday. In both counties, poll workers were undertrained to operate the new equipment, he said.
Local officials, statewide Democrats and voting activists, meanwhile, faulted the secretary of state for not providing adequate training and resources.
“If there was a failure of leadership, it starts where the buck should stop, at the top,” DeKalb County chief executive Michael Thurmond said in a statement, calling for an investigation into the state’s administration of the election.
Lauren Groh-Wargo, who leads former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’s voting rights group Fair Fight Action, said in a tweet that Raffensperger could have prevented the “democracy tragedy we are witnessing today across GA.”
All five states holding primaries on Tuesday – Georgia, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina and West Virginia – adjusted their procedures to make it easier for voters to cast ballots by mail. In all five, mail balloting was projected to reach record numbers, with 1.2 million casting ballots early or by mail in Georgia alone.
Voters encountered long lines in several states because of consolidated polling locations, including Nevada and South Carolina, where some polling places did not open on time and the polling place locator on the state’s website did not work properly, according to voting rights groups.
In a statement, former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign said the voting problems need to be addressed immediately to ensure that all Americans can safely vote in November.
“Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy. What we see in Georgia today, from significant issues with voting machines to breakdowns in the delivery of ballots to voters who requested to vote absentee, are a threat to those values, and are completely unacceptable,” said Rachana Desai Martin, the campaign’s senior counsel and national director for voter protection, in a statement.
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although Biden has already secured enough delegates to become the Democratic presidential nominee, a handful of Tuesday’s contests set up competitive congressional races in November. In Georgia, both parties will choose nominees in the 7th Congressional District, in the blue-trending Atlanta suburbs, and the deep-red 9th and 14th districts, where Republican incumbents are retiring.
Georgia’s primary originally was scheduled for March 24 but was delayed twice as a result of the pandemic.
In and around Atlanta, multiple observers reported that polling places struggling to operate machines ran out of provisional and emergency ballots within the first hour of voting. Others noted that the problems also extended into surrounding counties, as well as the Savannah area and isolated locations elsewhere in the state.
“It’s the wild, wild West,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “I don’t know what to call Georgia right now.”
Ron Clark, an educator and author, said he was sixth in line at a polling location in the Central Park area of Atlanta, spent more than three hours waiting and ultimately wasn’t able to cast his ballot because poll workers didn’t know how to use the machines.
Now, Clark said he is worried that his vote won’t count. He cast a provisional ballot, but he thinks the computer system logged him as having voted even though he wasn’t able to.
When he left, workers were processing about six provisional ballots per hour, he added – with more than 200 people waiting in line to vote. He also watched dozens of voters give up and walk away, he said.
“Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, or whatever party you’re affiliated with, you should have an opportunity to express your voice,” Clark said. “Right now, I just feel like a lot of people are doubting the strength and the effectiveness of democracy in our country.”
Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said there were problems in not only Fulton and DeKalb counties, but also Gwinnett County, where some polling locations opened with no voting equipment on hand.
“They alerted us of this problem this morning,” Fuchs said, adding: “There is nothing the secretary of state could have done to prevent this. This is the singular failure of poor planning at the local level.”
Joe Sorenson, a spokesman for Gwinnett County, said that 16 out of 156 polling locations opened without all of the polling equipment delivered, but he said voters were able to cast emergency ballots until the machines were in place. He said the equipment should have been set up over the previous weekend, acknowledging that it was “not normal” for it to be delivered on Election Day.
Fuchs said her office also received reports of machine errors in both Fulton and DeKalb, but technicians with the state said both were caused by poll workers. She said the technicians found that in one instance, poll workers were inserting magnetic voter cards upside down.
Fulton election officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On the issue of mail ballot delays, Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Fair Fight Action, said Raffensperger, not local officials, chose the vendor responsible for mailing ballots. But Fuchs countered that Fulton waited too long to mail ballots to those who had requested them via email, which has nothing to do with the vendor.
She also noted that the new machines got test runs in a limited number of counties last year – including Gwinnett – with few problems. Minimal problems also emerged during three weeks of early voting, she said.
The new system requires voters to check in, receive a programmed card from a poll worker, then insert the card into a touch-screen machine to cast a ballot. The system then produces a paper record that the voter feeds into an optical scanner.
“This is a training issue at the local level,” she said. “Our office does not have the authority or power to run elections. They had all the information they needed.”
Raffensperger said that the state would not begin reporting results until all voting was complete.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, implored voters not to give up in the face of long lines.
“If you are in line, PLEASE do not allow your vote to be suppressed,” she tweeted. “PLEASE stay in line. They should offer you a provisional ballot if the machines are not working.”
Voters in Georgia and South Carolina had until poll closing time on Tuesday to turn in their absentee ballots, but the volume could require days to count. Voters in Nevada and South Carolina, where ballots had to be postmarked by Tuesday, and North Dakota, where they had to be postmarked by Monday, could wait even longer to see results.
Clark County, Nevada’s largest county and home of Las Vegas, mailed ballots to every registered voter, a decision that drew criticism after scattered reports of what appeared to be unattended or discarded ballots outside apartment mailboxes. Republican Party leaders who are opposing efforts to expand mail voting said the incidents showed the risk of ballot fraud.
Wayne Thorley, Nevada’s deputy secretary of state for elections, said about 250,000 ballots were returned statewide as undeliverable, disputing that droves of ballots had been left unattended. The potential for fraud is low, he said, because the signature on a voter’s mail ballot must match the one the state has on file.
On Tuesday, most voters at the Paseo Verde Public Library in Henderson, in suburban Las Vegas, said they liked the convenience of choosing between mailing their ballot or dropping it off at the last minute at 30 voting stations around Clark County.
“It’s like mailing a letter, said bartender Jeff Brazos. “I would be willing to wait for an hour to vote, but this just makes things so much easier. Nobody asked for my ID. And if we do this in the presidential elections, I think voter turnout will be high.”
The shift to mail voting meant there were just three in-person polling locations in Clark County. At one of them, Paradise Community Center in Las Vegas, a line of 125 voters waited up to two hours in 80-degree weather, snaking out the gymnasium and onto the sidewalk.
Less than half of those in line wore masks, and there was no social distancing.
“Yeah, I’ve waited two hours but I’d wait two weeks if I had to,” said Justin Daniel, a 35-year-old barback. “I want to make sure my vote counts. And the only way is for me to be here.”
Not far away, 70-year-old retired auditor Karen Kreller sat on a foldable chair. She wasn’t taking any chances with the mail.
“See this ballot? I got it in the mail, but I want to make sure it gets counted. I’m not going to just drop it in some post office box and walk away,” she said, adding: “I like to see things with my own eyes.”
Officials said the first two hours of the vote, which began as 7 a.m., were fraught with computer problems. Election volunteers, sitting across a table from voters, separated by a plexiglass wall, held up red cards when they experienced a problem. Early in the day, workers at as many as half of the 12 registration stations held up red cards, slowing down the process.
Standing inside the center, Angelo Raymond squatted against the wall as he waited. At age 21, the delivery driver said this was his first election.
Was he tired of waiting to cast his vote?
“A little bit. I’m not going to lie,” he said.
Raymond said he had spent the previous weekend walking the Las Vegas Strip, taking part in mass rallies against police violence. And he said it dawned on him that it didn’t make much sense to complain about the system unless you took part in the process.
“The best way to change the system,” he said, “is to show up.”
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Willis reported from Atlanta and Glionna reported from Nevada. The Washington Post’s David Weigel in Washington contributed to this report.