Voting rights groups called problems with Georgia’s voting Tuesday “a complete catastrophe” that is ominous for November after advocates suggested preparations since January.
Some voters waited up to seven hours to cast ballots, while others were turned away without being sure their provisional ballots would be counted. The number of polling places was dramatically reduced. Voters reported problems with poll workers unable to operate voting equipment.
“Georgia’s election was a complete catastrophe,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Malfunctioning equipment, long lines, poll sites that opened late, insufficiently trained poll workers and paper ballot shortages resulted in a day of chaos for voters seeking to exercise their voice.”
Myrna Perez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said the problems were "a huge warning" for November because they were preventable and predictable.
“This wasn’t merely a warning bell," Perez said. "These were warning sirens.”
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told The Associated Press that state law charges counties with on-ground operation of elections.
“It’s really specifically in one or two counties, in Fulton and DeKalb counties, that had these issues today,” Raffensperger said. “It has nothing to do with what we’re doing in the rest of Georgia.”
A record number of voters submitted early ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, which delayed counting. Raffensperger announced that more than 1 million early votes were cast, including 810,024 mailed ballots, a week before the primary. For comparison, only 37,000 people voted by mail in 2016, he said.
Joanne Steiner, a retired small-business owner who lives in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, said she applied for an absentee ballot to avoid the threat of coronavirus. Her ballot arrived late Friday in the mail, but rather than risk having it not returned in time, Steiner ventured out that day for the last day of early voting in person.
The line at the Sandy Springs Library wrapped around the building, and Steiner said she waited five-and-a-half hours to vote without proper social distancing. Poll workers couldn't initially confirm her registration, despite her living at the same address for 18 years and voting in the last election. Steiner brought her absentee ballot application with her registration number and her passport for identification.
“This was an outrageous experience. I don’t know which part of it was more demeaning,” Steiner said. “There is some undercurrent of not allowing certain votes to count.”
More than a dozen civil rights groups, including the NAACP, Black Lives Matter and the League of Women Voters, wrote to Raffensperger and the state election board urging them to extend the deadline for absentee ballots beyond 7 p.m. Tuesday. The groups urged election officials to better promote the locations of drop-off boxes where absentee ballots could be submitted.
The advocacy group Common Cause and the Brennan Center wrote to Georgia election officials Jan. 13 urging preparations for equipment malfunctions, registration database errors and other failures that could deny voters their right to be counted.
The groups’ recommendations included having paper ballots on hand for equipment problems during peak hours, having provisional ballots on hand and providing at least one voting booth at polling places for every 250 voters.
“Thousands of Georgians were denied the right to vote,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause of Georgia. “Our warnings were not heeded.”
The recommendations followed problems in 2018 when voters waited two to three hours because of inoperable machines coupled with historic turnout. A study by the Brennan Center found that blacks and Hispanics waited 45% longer than whites to vote in 2018.
Hourslong waits were reported at numerous locations in Georgia on Tuesday. A bipartisan presidential commission recommended in 2014 that no voters wait longer than 30 minutes to cast ballots.
“It’s the kind of thing that’s bad under all circumstances,” Perez said. “It’s especially horrible in a period where turnout is likely to be high and voter confidence in our systems is low and in question. We need to feel comfortable and confident that the election was well-run and that it was fair.”
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, urged the Senate Wednesday to approve legislation designed to prevent voter suppression. Georgia closed more than 200 polling places since a Supreme Court case in 2013 struck down provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
Aklima Khondoker, state director for the group All Voting is Local, said lines of hundreds of people snaked around buildings and some voters waited five, six or seven hours to cast ballots despite rain and humid heat.
“Our democracy failed us, but our people did not fail us,” Khondoker said. “I am utterly disappointed in the state of our elections here in Georgia.”
Nse Ufot, executive director of the group New Georgia Project, questioned whether the problems were intentional because they were avoidable. She described herself as equal parts “determined and pissed off.”
“We saw people frustrated who literally quit on the spot,” Ufot said of polling places that opened hours later than scheduled and closed before voting was done. “I am disgusted.”
Ufot said the worst lines were in the metropolitan area around Atlanta in Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties. Khondoker said predominantly white areas of Fulton County, such as Sandy Springs and Alpharetta, didn’t have problems.
“There were huge disparities,” she said. “While Fulton County had overwhelming issues, we saw those overwhelming issues in black and brown communities predominantly.”
Stephanie Cho, executive director of the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said Asian voters found language barriers and potential racism in Johns Creek.
“The confusion was insane,” Cho said. “It’s actually getting worse.”
Clarke gave Georgia a grade of F if the primary was a dry run for November.
“The state must undertake aggressive action now to ensure preparedness for far higher turnout levels in November,” Clarke said.
The polling problems unfolded against a national backdrop of protests against racial injustice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police. Clarke suggested Georgia’s problems had a starker effect on black voters.
“Let’s all work, hope and pray that this is not a preview of November,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a tweet after noting tweets about long lines where machines weren't working at the Sandtown Recreation Center or Central Park, where voters filled ballots by hand.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia primary: Voting groups blast long lines, other malfunctions