Vote counting stretched late into the night in Georgia and Nevada on Tuesday, after both states grappled with long lines for in-person voting and a surge of mail ballots that slowed the tabulation process.
The contests on the ballot included nationally watched races for Senate and House, and Wednesday dawned with many of the top contests unresolved. In both states, voters reported lines in excess of four hours, and several counties in Georgia sought emergency judicial orders to keep their polling places open for hours after the original 7 p.m. closing time because of the lines and technical glitches.
The voting issues and delays in reporting results provided a potential preview of the November general election under pandemic rules: polling places closed and consolidated because of a lack of staff, restrictions on occupancy to comply with social distancing rules and multi-fold increases in the number of voters casting absentee ballots that must be verified.
“Due to the nature of this election, we have said multiple times that election results will take time to receive, validate, and post,” Georgia statewide voting implementation manager Gabriel Sterling said in a statement circulated by the secretary of state’s office early Wednesday. “Voting in a pandemic has posed a variety [of] issues for the elections officials as well as the voters. We look forward to sharing full results.”
In Georgia, voters across the state — but especially in and around Atlanta — have encountered long lines and voting delays. Several voters and voting-rights advocates told POLITICO that people waited for hours at polling places where voting materials or machines either didn’t arrive on time or weren’t functioning.
The problems in Georgia also led to a back-and-forth blame game between officials in the state. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his office called the issues "unacceptable" and placed the blame on local election officials in a handful of counties, saying they were ultimately responsible for training poll workers and voters in other parts of the state were able to conduct their election with minimal problems. Officials in those counties fired back that the buck needed to stop with Raffensperger, the state’s chief elections officer.
The most consequential race in Georgia was the Democratic Senate primary. Jon Ossoff entered as the frontrunner, but as of early Wednesday morning, it was unclear whether he had won a majority of the votes cast, teetering on the threshold necessary to avoid a runoff. Teresa Tomlinson, the former mayor of Columbus, was in second place, narrowly ahead of businesswoman Sarah Riggs Amico, both of whom are fighting for a distant second and hoping to hold Ossoff below a majority and force the race into an August runoff.
Ossoff did not address the media on the state of the race as votes were being tallied, but his campaign put out a statement after midnight expressing support for the state’s voters and outrage at election officials, particularly Raffensperger. Ellen Foster, Ossoff’s campaign manager, called the secretary of state’s “lack of leadership and personal accountability ... outrageous.”
“Today we have been inspired by the perseverance of Georgia’s voters in the face of rank incompetence and outrageous failures by state and county election officials,” Foster said.
Ossoff, who lost a high profile House special election in 2017, has run on an anti-corruption message and relied on his fundraising prowess and name identification from the House race to boost his bid. His name recognition in Atlanta and the surrounding counties, in particular, helped stake him to the significant lead, as he was best known and had his largest margins in the area that overlapped with his 2017 bid. He also has endorsements from Reps. John Lewis and Hank Johnson to help propel his candidacy. Tomlinson has largely run on her experience as mayor, arguing the party should nominate a candidate who has won previous elections and served in government.
National Democrats have not weighed in on the primary, despite their general strategy of endorsing candidates in races that are considered a priority as they seek to win back the Senate. If the race goes to a runoff, it’s unclear whether national Democrats will weigh in at that stage, though many would like to avoid the headache of a runoff and focus on November.
Regardless of who wins Tuesday or if the race goes to a runoff, Perdue will start with a hefty financial edge. He has $9.4 million in the bank as of May 20, while Ossoff had the most among Democrats with $950,000.
The woman who defeated Ossoff in the 2017 House race, now-former Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.), won the GOP primary Tuesday to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath, who narrowly ousted Handel, ending her 18-month tenure.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans held contested primaries in an open neighboring seat, which was the closest House race in the country in 2018. GOP Rep. Rob Woodall is retiring after coming within 450 votes of being ousted. Republicans nominated physician Rich McCormick, while no candidate earned a majority in the Democratic primary, necessitating a runoff.
In a bit of a surprise, longtime Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) will be forced into a primary runoff in the state’s 13th District. Scott, a centrist first elected in 2002, will face former state Rep. Keisha Waites in the August runoff.
Voters were also going to the polls Tuesday in four other states: South Carolina, West Virginia, North Dakota and Nevada.
In South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) easily won his primary — in contrast some of his more competitive nomination fights against conservative challengers — and will face Democrat Jaime Harrison, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary.
House Republicans avoided a runoff in the state’s 1st District, where state Rep. Nancy Mace, the first female graduate of The Citadel, won the nomination outright to take on Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.), one of the most vulnerable members in Congress. President Donald Trump won his Lowcountry seat by 13 points.
The top race in West Virginia was party-switching Gov. Jim Justice's bid for a second term. Justice was first elected as a Democrat in 2016 — but, encouraged by President Donald Trump, he switched his registration and became a Republican less than a year into his term. He easily won Tuesday's primary and will face Democrat Ben Salango in the general election.
In Nevada, Republicans are selecting nominees in two Las Vegas-area House seats held by Democratic Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford. Lee, one of 30 Democrats in a district that Trump won in 2016, is likely to face either a former state treasurer or a former professional wrestler. But first results in the state didn't become available until after 2 a.m. Pacific Time.
The long in-person voting lines in Georgia came even as the state saw a massive swell of mail-in voting. Raffensperger’s office mailed absentee ballot request forms to every active voter in the state. As of Monday, a record 943,000 voters had returned an absentee ballot, a drastic increase for a state that usually sees around 40,000 mail-in voters.
Stacey Abrams, one of the most prominent Democrats in the state, was sharply critical of Raffensperger. “We found ourselves in the midst of both incompetence and maleficence," she said at a press conference. "And unfortunately the secretary of state is now trying to shift the blame and he’s trying to create a pretext that only a few counties are being impacted, and that this is a localized problem.”
Georgia was not alone in adapting to holding an election during a pandemic. Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, mailed every active voter in her state a ballot, while Clark County, home to more than seven-in-10 of the state's voters, went a step further and mailed ballots to voters labeled as “inactive” after national Democrats filed a lawsuit. Inactive voters are voters who don’t return an address confirmation card from election officials or haven't voted in the past four years, The Nevada Independent reported at the time.
Even still, some voters in Nevada did vote in person and similarly faced long lines. Some voters told The Associated Press that they waited up to five hours to vote.
In Nevada, mail ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and received with a week will count, meaning a late surge in ballots could swing close elections.
Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.