'Chilling Harbinger' for November as Georgia Primary Plagued by Long Lines and Voting Machines Problems

People wait in line to vote in Georgia's Primary Election on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta. Georgia, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Dakota, and Nevada held primaries Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

'Chilling Harbinger' for November as Georgia Primary Plagued by Long Lines and Voting Machines Problems

After one voter waited over two hours to cast a ballot, she said, "It gives you a voter suppression-type feeling."

Reports of hourslong lines, issues with voting machines, and not enough poll workers in Georgia on Tuesday led advocates to warn that problems with the state's primary election foreshadow what could happen nationwide in November's general election if proactive measures are not taken.

"Lines snaked out the doors, some polling locations didn't open on time, and others had no working voting machines in several counties in the first hours of voting in Georgia's primary," reported the Washington Post.

The newspaper added the scenes served as a potential preview of what voting could look like across the country later this year, when President Donald Trump is expected to face off against former Vice President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee.

"What happened to voters today in Georgia is a chilling harbinger of what can happen to all Americans in November if Congress and the states don't act," Aquene Freechild, co-director of Public Citizen's Democracy Is for People campaign, warned Tuesday.

Georgia voters and local reporters took to Twitter on Tuesday to share photos of long lines and accounts of problems with machines that are part of the state's new voting system, which cost over $100 million:

"Poll workers said they had difficulties turning on voter check-in computers, encoding voter access cards, and installing touchscreens," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Some voters left their polling stations without casting ballots while others relied on paper provisional ballots--though some locations ran out of provisional ballots, the AJC reported.

Ari Schaffer, a spokesperson for Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's Republican secretary of state, said in a statement to the New York Times that the problems reported across the state were "not issues of the equipment but a function of counties engaging in poor planning, limited training, and failures of leadership."

"We do have reports of equipment being delivered to the wrong locations and delivered late," said Schaffer. "We have reports of poll workers not understanding setup or how to operate voting equipment."

However, Seth Bringman, a spokesperson for former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams' voting-rights group Fair Fight Action, placed blame squarely on Raffensperger. "He had primary responsibility to make sure today's elections went well," Bringman told the Post, "and he failed."

Maggie Chambers, a spokesperson for the state's Democratic Party, issued a statement Tuesday condemning Raffensperger's failure to "provide adequate support and training for counties as he implemented Georgia's new voting system." She demanded he fix such problems "immediately before we see these issues for every election this cycle."

According to the Times:

More than one million Georgia voters had already cast ballots before Tuesday, most of them by mail, after Mr. Raffensperger sent absentee ballot applications to all active voters.

But those who had voted in person before Tuesday at early-voting sites had already reported long waits--in some cases up to seven hours. New rules for social distancing and disinfecting voting machines had caused many of those delays.

Ahkeba Green waited over two hours to vote at Peachcrest Elementary School in Decatur. She told AJC's J.D. Capelouto, "It gives you a voter suppression-type feeling."

Journalist Ari Berman, who authored the 2015 bookGive Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, shared some videos of frustrated Georgia voters on Twitter. He pointed out that the state also faced allegations of voter suppression in 2018 and declared that it is "shameful what's happening in Georgia right now."

"Voter suppression in Georgia today underscores how Trump/GOP weaponizing coronavirus to make voting much harder, particularly for young voters, and voters of color," Berman added, highlighting his new report for Mother Jones on that subject. "This is what keeps me up at night."

As Berman wrote for Mother Jones:

The coronavirus has heightened the already considerable obstacles blocking citizens from exercising their right to vote. In the last decade, Republicans have enacted new voting restrictions in 25 states. The Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, unleashing new efforts in states with long histories of voting discrimination to make it harder for voters of color to cast ballots. And then there are the Russians, who attempted to access election infrastructure in all 50 states in 2016, and could try again. "What you've done with coronavirus," said Marc Elias, the leading Democratic voting rights lawyer, "is you've added one more huge stressor to a system that was already at the breaking point." The risk of mass voter disenfranchisement is greater in 2020 than at any time since the era before the abolition of poll taxes and literacy tests in the 1960s.

Voter ID laws are far more discriminatory when Department of Motor Vehicle offices are shuttered. Purges are more harmful when removed voters cannot easily reregister. Limited polling places and five-hour waits are especially pernicious under the threat of viral infection. And voter registration and traditional get-out-the-vote efforts have stalled. "Souls to the Polls" drives led by black churches have been put on hold. States have delayed primaries and severely reduced or wholly eliminated in-person voting. Few are prepared to handle a surge of mail-in ballots in November. Democrats worry that Covid-19 could be weaponized to the GOP's advantage, locking in an older and whiter electorate that stems the impact of demographic change.

The conditions in Georgia Tuesday led advocacy groups and local political figures--including Common Cause Georgia, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Stand Up America, and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff--to circulate resources for reporting problems at polling stations. The issues also elicited new calls to expand vote-by-mail nationally for the November elections.

"The chaos voters in Georgia are experiencing today highlights what could go wrong in November if Congress does not intervene and provide immediate election assistance funding," Stand Up America founder and president Sean Eldridge said in a statement. "No American should have to risk their health in long lines to cast their ballot, or be turned away from the voting booth."

"The Senate has sat on a bill for weeks that would provide $3.6 billion in federal funds to states to ensure that election officials can implement no-excuse absentee voting, early voting, and other reforms that keep polling places safe and operational," Eldridge added, calling on GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to immediately hold a vote on the Democratic legislation.

Berman explained that "public health and election experts agree that voting by mail is the safest way to cast a ballot in a pandemic. Yet most states are unprepared to hold mail elections in a way that won't lead to significant voter disenfranchisement." He detailed how states may struggle to get ballots to voters, who could also "see their ballots thrown out on technicalities."

Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Berman that "because it's been a minor method of voting in a lot of the key states, the rules and practices involving mail voting have gotten less scrutiny and haven't been thought out to make sure they're fair and accessible."

Weiser also pointed to Wisconsin--which was widely criticized in April for limiting absentee ballots and holding in-person voting despite Covid-19 concerns--as an example of what states may face on a greater scale in November, when turnout is expected to be higher.

How Wisconsin handled voting in April exposed "a lot of gaps the system was not prepared for that will only be exacerbated in a presidential election," she said. "If 34% turnout strained resources close to the breaking point, what is 70% or more turnout going to look like? ...That really worries me."

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