By: Fiona Carroll
Legal action is pending following Georgia’s problematic June 9 primary that was characterized by long lines at polls, broken voting machines, failure to process mail-in ballots, and fears over possible voter suppression. With November’s general election rapidly approaching, several state entities and voters’ rights groups are scrambling to ensure a fairer process this time around.
The current public health crisis, coupled with an increased interest in voting, is posing unique challenges for holding elections this cycle. The pandemic has caused a shortage of poll workers, causing some polling locations to close or be forced to function without enough staff. Demand for mail-in ballots has also surged. In some Georgia counties, demand for mail-in ballots was 140 times greater than normal. Though some of this is likely attributable to voters wanting to avoid the crowds at polling places, voters are also more enthusiastic about voting in 2020 than in previous elections. According to a July Fox News poll, 85% of Americans said they were “extremely or very motivated to vote,” which exceeds enthusiasm for voting in 2016 by 10 points.
Georgia election officials have felt the pressure of these factors, and have also attempted to orchestrate a transition to new voting machines. The consensus seems to be that attempts to manage these demands were unsuccessful.
Fulton County, which includes most of the Atlanta area and is the most populous county in the state, proved to be a hot spot for problems as 80% of complaints from voters originated in Fulton. Fulton received over 250 reports from voters who did not receive an absentee ballot at all, or who received ballots that were damaged or unusable. Additionally, new voting machines–which were mandated last year by a federal judge following concerns with the old system’s ability to withstand interference attempts for foreign actors–added another layer of complications for poll workers. Workers were never trained to troubleshoot issues arising from the new software, and in some precincts, poll workers were unable to start the voting machines at all. Even in areas where voting machines were operational, voters waited in line for hours to cast their ballots.
Having fewer polling places than normal likely contributed to lines and long waits for voting. Leading up to the primary, more than 10% of Georgia’s polling locations were moved or closed. In the Atlanta metro area – where 47.2% of the population identifies as non-white – over 80 polling locations were shuttered ahead of Election Day.
In a preliminary investigation of the problems arising out of Fulton County, the Georgia Elections Board found probable cause to refer a case to the state attorney general’s office. The main contention in the investigation regards the county’s failure to properly process mail-in ballots. The Elections Board found that among the complaints it was investigating, over 100 people who had trouble with their mail-in ballots decided not to vote at all. Though county officials maintain that any issues with ballots arose out of unavoidable complications inherent in voting during a pandemic, the state Elections Board believes “there is just no margin for error,” given Georgia’s history of voter suppression. The matter was referred to the state attorney general’s office to further investigate noncompliance with state law governing ballot processing.
Additionally, last month, the Democratic Party of Georgia, along with a number of Georgians, filed a lawsuit against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The suit alleges state election officials failed to account for “closure and consolidation of polling locations,” provide elections officials and volunteers with sufficient training, and to address technical problems at polling locations. The lawsuit seeks relief in the form of an order that would require election officials to provide more polling places and resources for the general election in November.