Voters endured heat, pouring rain and waits as long as five hours on Tuesday to cast ballots in Georgia, demonstrating a fierce desire to participate in the democratic process while raising questions about the emerging battleground state’s ability to manage elections in November when the White House is at stake.
A confluence of events disrupted primary elections for president, U.S. Senate and dozens of other contests.
The polls were staffed by fewer workers because of concerns about the coronavirus. A reduced workforce contributed to officials consolidating polling places, which disproportionately affected neighbourhoods with high concentrations of people of colour. Long lines were also reported in whiter suburban areas.
Some voters said they requested mail-in ballots that never arrived, forcing them to go to polling places and adding to the lines. Turnout, meanwhile, may be higher than expected as voters said they were determined to vote following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., and the ensuing demonstrations that swept cities including Atlanta.
There was also trouble with Georgia’s new voting system that combines touch screens with scanned paper ballots.
The developments were troubling heading into the fall presidential campaign, which will attract even more voters. President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden are expected to fiercely compete in this rapidly changing state. That leaves officials, who have already been criticized for attempting to suppress the vote, with less than five months to turn things around.
The state’s chief elections officer, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, announced plans to investigate voting problems that plagued Fulton and DeKalb counties, where roughly half the population is black.
Republican House Speaker David Ralston directed leaders of the House Governmental Affairs Committee to investigate the “unacceptable deficiencies” across the state, particularly in Fulton County.
“The legislative branch of government has an obligation to go beyond the mutual finger-pointing and get to the truth and the real reasons underlying these frustrations and concerns,” Ralston said.
Benaiah Shaw, who joined the protests against police brutality after Floyd’s death, said he votes in every election but had never waited as long as he did on Tuesday — five hours.
“It’s really disheartening to see a line like this in an area with predominantly black residents,” said Shaw, a 25-year-old African American. He said he was appalled by how few voting machines were available.
Americans were also voting in primaries in West Virginia, Nevada and South Carolina. But the tumult in Georgia garnered much of the attention, reinforcing concerns about managing elections amid the coronavirus.
The Biden campaign called the voting problems in Georgia “completely unacceptable,” and a threat to American values of free and fair elections.
“We only have a few months left until voters around the nation head to the polls again, and efforts should begin immediately to ensure that every Georgian — and every American — is able to safely exercise their right to vote,” said Rachana Desai Martin, the campaign’s national director for voter protection and senior counsel.
Long waits in Wisconsin, Washington
Voters were also forced to wait hours to cast ballots in recent primary contests across Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. While there were no reports of machine malfunctions in other states on Tuesday, the number of voting places was dramatically reduced in virtually every state that has held in-person voting in recent weeks to accommodate a drop in poll workers.
Even before Georgia voters ran into problems, Raffensperger warned that results may be slow to come in because of poll closures and virus restrictions.
Outside a recreation centre being used as a polling site in Atlanta, some voters said they had been waiting for nearly four hours in a line that wrapped around the block. At another site off Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, several people walked up, looked at the line wrapped around the parking lot and then left, shaking their heads in frustration.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said voters in line at one of Atlanta’s largest precincts reported all the machines were down. She encouraged voters not to give up.
“If you are in line, PLEASE do not allow your vote to be suppressed,” the mayor tweeted.
Georgia being closely watched
The problems weren’t just limited to the Atlanta area. In Savannah, Mayor Van Johnson said he was “inundated” with phone calls Tuesday morning from voters reporting “extensive delays.” Election officials in surrounding Chatham County said voting hours at 35 precincts were being extended by two hours.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said he wasn’t surprised that Georgia had voting problems given that the state’s elections chief is a Republican. He noted that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp faced allegations of suppressing votes when he oversaw the 2018 elections as secretary of state.
“Republicans want to ensure that it is as hard as possible for people to vote,” Perez said in an interview.
Kemp was largely silent about the voting problems on Tuesday, aside from retweeting a message from his wife urging people to vote.
Georgia hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992, but the state is being closely watched by Trump and Biden. The former vice president, in particular, hopes to emerge as the prime beneficiary of energy from the African American community and its white allies, who have held massive protests for more than a week.
His path to the presidency was already focused on maximizing black turnout and expanding his alliance with white suburbanites and city dwellers, young voters, Asian Americans and Latinos. Trump, meanwhile, hoped to demonstrate strength among his base of white voters in small towns while holding his own in metro areas.