By Evelyn Li
After the primary election in Georgia on June 9th, we now know what the worst case scenario looks like. A perfect storm created an election meltdown, where voters were subjected to confusion, exposure to the virus, and wait times upwards of four hours.
Georgia voters faced the set of problems present in other states’ elections during the COVID-19 era. People, rightfully, feared gathering at the polls, and the transition to vote-by-mail was messy, to say the least. Instead of automatically sending ballots to every registered active voter, the Secretary of State’s office chose to mail out absentee ballot request forms. Many applied for an absentee ballot but did not receive it in time to mail it back. Others never received their requested forms at all.
In Fulton County, which encompasses much of Atlanta and its suburbs and is the state’s most populous county, voters were told they could email requests for absentee ballots. But this process resulted in many applications being “lost”. The high number of requests froze email accounts and jammed printers. The election office was also understaffed after being hit by COVID-19. One Fulton County elections employee died and another was hospitalized. Even some voters who applied as early as April, such as state senator Jen Jordan, still did not receive their ballots before Election Day. And when absentee ballots did come in the mail, it appears that the vendor did a sloppy job. For example, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said she received a ballot that came with a return envelope that would not open. She tried steaming the pieces of paper, to no avail.
We do not know how many individuals failed to receive their absentee ballots and were either unable to or decided against voting in person. But anecdotal evidence suggests there were many, and their voices were silenced. Of course, thousands did choose to go to the polls, and the situation was similarly bleak. Early voting is normally a good option for people who want to vote while avoiding the hassle of Election Day. On the last day of early voting in Atlanta, however, waits were as long as eight hours — the length of an entire work day.
As in other states, Georgia suffered from a massive poll worker shortage. Fulton County was 250 workers short. This led to the closure and consolidation of polling places. Metro Atlanta was affected in particular — more than 80 polling places were consolidated. (This compounded the effect of polling places closures in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision.) 18,000 active registered voters in Midtown were assigned to one precinct, Park Tavern. The long lines there, captured by New York Times drone footage, went viral.
Unlike in other states, Georgia’s new voting machines — purchased for a whopping $107 million — failed to function properly. As early as 2018, concerns were raised over these machines. The bipartisan National Election Defense Coalition, for instance, described the new technology as “unnecessarily costly and less efficient…nothing more than a boondoggle for the vendors and an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars.” Poll workers — many of whom were last minute recruits with insufficient training — struggled with encoding access cards, entering the correct PIN numbers, and logging into voter check-in tablets. The machines’ touchscreen displays malfunctioned. In some cases, the machines could not turn on or required so much power that they blew fuses and never turned on.
At Parkside Elementary School in Fulton County, voters complained of machines failing, resulting in an hours-long wait. They were not offered provisional ballots. Cross Keys High School in Dekalb County near Atlanta encountered similar problems and only had twenty provisional ballots on hand as back-up, of which they quickly ran out.
Even more disgraceful: At 16 locations in Gwinnett County, the election equipment did not arrive on time for when the polls opened.
The procurement process for getting these election machines was concerning. The state bought the machines from Dominion Voting Systems. The system purchased, Dominion’s Democracy 5.5, actually failed certification when inspected in Texas. One of Dominion’s registered lobbyists, Jared Thomas, however, served as chief of staff to Brian Kemp, the current governor and former Secretary of State of Georgia, raising, at minimum, the appearance of revolving door political access.
Overall, across the state, polling hours had to be extended in 20 out of 159 counties. The most serious issues were concentrated in the counties that make up the greater Atlanta area, which is the most diverse part of the state. Racial minorities were more severely impacted, lending credibility to the claim that this was targeted voter suppression.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former mayor Kasim Reed spent Election Day calling attention to problems at majority-black precincts such as Sandtown, Cliftondale, Ralph Bunche, and tens of others. Reed tweeted, “It is hard for any serious person to argue that these kinds of delays and long lines are not deliberate.”
LaTosha Brown, a founder of Black Votes Matter, compared her experience voting in Union City, where voting ended at 12:37am, to that of the predominantly white suburbs: “I come over to this side of town, and white folks are strolling in. On my side of town, we brought stadium chairs…We have got to stop making voting a traumatic experience for black voters.”
The Secretary of State’s office tried shifting blame to the counties, and conservative commentators pointed out that election officials in Dekalb and Fulton counties are Democrats. Dekalb County CEO Michael Thurmond shot back by saying that, as Georgia’s top election official, “it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to train, prepare, and equip election staff throughout the state to ensure fair and equal access to the ballot box.” Steve Bradshaw, Dekalb County’s Commission Presiding Officer, claimed “It’s astounding to me what an abdication of leadership that is, to push the ownership down to the counties. I was raised that if you mess up, fess up.” Furthermore, Republican-controlled Gwinnett County breaks the “pattern” and shows that dysfunction was not exclusive to elections run by Democrats.
As if the election could not get worse, days later, activists raised the issue of poorly calibrated vote-tabulation scanners having the potential to miscount votes by the thousands.
In the wake of this disastrous election that should be considered an embarrassment for the state, Georgia lawmakers seem to have learned little. Instead of immediately working to tackle obvious flaws and ensure a smoother process for November, the legislature is looking to pass a law to make it illegal for the Secretary of State to mail out absentee ballot applications en masse. Increasing the burden of voting after this experience is the most outrageous response imaginable.
At this point, Georgia is in a league of its own in terms of voter suppression and only competing against itself to make voting more difficult. But the entire primary cycle has revealed that pretty much every state has something to work on to get ready for a big turnout election in November — and some, like Georgia and Wisconsin, need a complete overhaul in a very short amount of time. We have to draw a line in the sand and raise our voices to say that everyone should be able to vote safely and easily, and have their vote counted. We know what steps must be taken to run a smooth election during a pandemic; our election officials must act accordingly.
Evelyn Li is an Equal Citizens Fellow and an incoming student at the University of Chicago.