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 more than five 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. And 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 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.
A collection of 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 had also 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 would deny voters their rights 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.
The recommendations followed problems in 2018 where 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.
Hours-long waits were reported at numerous locations in Georgia on Tuesday. But a bipartisan presidential commission in 2014 recommended 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.”
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 custody of Minneapolis police. Clarke suggested Georgia’s problems had a starker impact 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 were filling ballots by hand.