The red flags that foreshadowed Georgia’s June 9 primary election meltdown were ignored

Clues and causes kept coming, but state officials told counties to proceed

Published June 12, 2020 4:59AM (EDT)

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

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The signs kept coming that Georgia's June 9 primary would not go well. On the last day of early voting, the Friday before the election, Jon Ossoff, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, waited for more than three hours to vote on Atlanta's west side. It took Nikema Williams, the Georgia Democratic Party chair and a state senator from the city, more than five hours—on her wedding anniversary.

On the night before he voted, Ossoff told supporters that Fulton County in metro Atlanta had lost thousands of emailed requests for absentee ballots. That revelation suggested that voters who had never received their mail-in ballot would likely show up at what were fewer in-person polling places — reduced in number in response to an exodus of poll workers in the pandemic, and due to calls by officials to vote by mail. But Ossoff's news hinted at deeper dysfunctions.

For weeks, Andrea Miller, a board member with the Center for Common Ground, which since January has been sending millions of postcards and texts to voters in voter suppression states, including Georgia. The messages reminded voters of what to do as registration and mail-in ballot deadlines came and went. But nobody had been answering the telephones at Fulton County's election office. One week before the June 9 primary, Miller finally learned why.

"The Fulton County Board of Elections had a COVID outbreak and they were closed for three weeks. Apparently, nobody there knew or thought to forward the phones, so it just rang and rang and rang," she said, exasperated. "Excuse me, people. This is an election. It is a primary, but still an election… You had no [emergency] plan if you had to leave the office?"

Fulton County did not comment, but a consultant working with Georgia officials said, "That's right about Fulton." (The Washington Post reported that "the county's top two mail ballot officials" got the virus and one died on April 15, as plans for absentee voting were scaling up elsewhere.) But Fulton, other metro Atlanta counties and rural counties in black epicenters were not just backed up by volumes of ballot applications. The counties, which must follow instructions from Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the state election board and Georgia law, were having other problems preparing for the state's already postponed primary. Those problems openly simmered until they boiled over on primary day.

The state's Arizona-based ballot printing and mailing contractor was late. Counties, meanwhile, were having trouble finding enough poll workers for in-person voting sites. Many of those still willing to work the election did not want to go to additional training sessions. Georgia's polls also would be using new e-poll books, touch screen computers that printed ballot summaries and scanners—the first new system deployed in years. That technology, virus or not, required extra training, atop pandemic precautions. And because of social distancing, poll workers had to spread out the machinery. At some sites, that meant fewer machines would be used.

These were only some of the issues that raised red flags heading into early and primary day voting. There were other complications, such as Georgia election laws that place extra burdens on voters to obtain and cast absentee ballots. These were technicalities to satisfy. Voters had to sign the applications, not merely fill out forms online. Absentee ballots could be taken to drop boxes or early voting sites, but they would not be accepted at any poll on primary day.

As cracks in the logistics started to emerge, last-minute decisions were made behind closed doors affecting voters — with little public explanation or information offered. These decisions appeared to be centered in metro Atlanta, according to press reports. The manner in which these poll closures and relocations unfolded provoked suspicions, especially among voting rights advocates who have spent years contending with voter suppression in Georgia.

On the day before the June 9 primary, Miller learned that longtime polls were being closed in Atlanta's black neighborhoods. She was having a hard time finding out where those voters were supposed to vote. This development came after counties had not been readily posting information where absentee ballot drop boxes were located, she said, prompting allies to search and find them—to provide voters with needed information that should have been widely available.

"The one that concerns me is Fulton County Precinct 11P. That is a senior living facility. It is 38 floors," said Miller, who asked if the closure was due to COVID-19, voter suppression or some politically expeditious mix of both. "The building managers announced it would not be a polling place for the primary, but at the time didn't know where their polling location would be. So now, the question in my mind is, 'How many polling locations did they close or move?' 'And why didn't they notify people about it?' The NAACP didn't know about it. The ProGeorgia Table didn't know about it. It was wrong in both VAN [Democratic Party voter database] systems."

"That's all true," said Garland Favorito of VoterGA, which advocated for accurate and verifiable elections. "There's been a ton of issues like that. You don't have enough poll workers to staff the existing locations. You can't get enough equipment in there. It's a fiasco."

These snapshots occurred before the first in-person votes were cast on primary day in Georgia. These signs pointed to additional breakdowns that erupted once the polls opened.

"What we have been experiencing is equipment failure, poll workers not being trained properly on how to operate the new voting machines, not having enough paper ballots when the machines shut down, long lines — two-to-four hour wait times," said Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, speaking on an Election Day briefing organized by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which ran hotlines staffed by lawyers in Georgia, South Carolina and Nevada for June 9's primaries. "Also, we have been experiencing not having the right kinds of ballots available for people; having only the non-partisan ballots, not the particular party's [primary] ballots. And not being able to really get in touch with the election officials to cure [the problems]. One county, Gwinnett County, just brought the machines around 11 a.m. to open particular polling locations."

"This election has been a catastrophe," said Kristen Clarke, Lawyers' Committee's executive director, opening the briefing. "If we view the primary election as a dry run for November, then Georgia gets an 'F' today. We have been flooded with complaints from voters who encountered barriers… Georgia is a repeat offender when it comes to voter suppression efforts and actions that undermine voting rights. With political will, they can get this right. My hope is that we will use the lessons that we take from today to ensure that every voter can exercise their voice in the November general election in Georgia."

"The context for this election is important," she explained. "Georgia delayed its primary election to give itself enough time to get it right. They sent absentee ballots to registered voters. But none of these actions worked. The secretary of state outsourced processing of absentee ballots to a vendor in Arizona and failed to provide adequate instructions that would ensure that the process was carried out correctly. Some ballots were mailed to voters' street addresses, even when a different mailing address was provided. Some voters received the wrong absentee ballots that applied to elections happening in different precincts. Some voters received absentee ballots that had no inner ballot secrecy envelope, as required under law. And, for others, they never received an absentee ballot at all. That left officials with the job of contending with more voters today on Election Day."

These problems weren't unique to Georgia. They were just most concentrated there.

Confusion over applying for a mail-in ballot online led to thousands of voters not receiving one in South Carolina, which also held its primary on June 9 and also debuted a new voting system statewide, said Duncan Buell, a Richland County election commissioner. He said that 12,000 voters in his county — where the state capital of Columbia is located—did not complete the absentee ballot application process correctly, which was partly a result of government offices not effectively communicating what voters needed to do. (These voters filled in their information online, but did not print out, sign and mail in that form. Thus, they did not get a ballot and the county anticipated that they would vote in person.)

"We're using new machines that people are not familiar with, and we've got a real problem with not having enough competent workers at the polling place for voting to help people in a competent way with their concerns," said Susan Dunn, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, speaking at the committee's briefing. "We've also gotten many reports with people who did ask for absentee ballots, who either did not receive them or received them so late that they were concerned about them being received [by election officials] in the mail today."

Other states also underestimated the volume of voters wanting to vote in person. In Nevada, the settlement of a Democratic Party-led lawsuit meant that mail-in ballots were sent to all of the voters in Clark County, where Las Vegas and 80 percent of the electorate are located. The legal agreement also led the county to expand its planned in-person voting from one to three sites. Nonetheless, the last vote cast in Las Vegas was at 3:09 a.m. on Wednesday, more than seven hours after that voter got in line. "More locations are definitely needed," said Emily Zamora, executive director of Silver State Voices, on the Lawyers' Committee call.

But Georgia's problems included and dwarfed these issues seen in South Carolina and Nevada. What was especially notable in Georgia was how pre-Election Day logistical challenges were compounded by election rules that imposed additional burdens on voters and poll workers.

"Part of the problem in Fulton and DeKalb and all of the [Atlanta] counties — Cobb and Gwinnett had similar problems — is that when we moved the election date [to June 9], and sent out 6.9 million absentee ballot applications, we didn't allow for those [returned applications] to be processed earlier," Butler said. "The law says that they have to send out the first absentee ballot 49 days prior to the election. That was not enough time for them to process the applications. They [the state] used an outside vendor in Arizona, and it takes more than 10 days for ballots to reach some people. So, with people having requested ballots and not getting them in a timely fashion, now they are ending up going to the polling locations."

Butler also is an election official — sitting on Morgan County's Board of Elections. In that role, she can try to guide what falls under her county's purview, such as poll worker training and administering precincts. But she cannot change or challenge the state-ordered rules or laws that don't make sense amid voting in a pandemic. On the Lawyers' Committee call, she pinpointed additional causes behind the most visible breakdowns: blocks-long lines and hours-long waits to vote.

Another critical bottleneck identified by Butler was what poll workers had to do when voters who did not get their mail-in ballot showed up and expected to vote. She said poll workers at the check-in desk had to use the state's new iPad-based poll books to cancel their absentee ballot before allowing them to go and vote.

"The poll worker has to call to verify with the Board of Elections that they can go ahead and cancel the ballot," she said—adding those phone calls took time. "Then [if approved] they have to have the voter sign an affidavit saying that they won't use that [mail-in] ballot, they won't turn it in, and they are canceling the process. Once they do that, they can get a [computer] card [programmed there to bring up the correct ballot on the new touch screen voting machine] to actually go vote."

Canceling or surrendering mail-in ballots added to the delays. Other states also have that process, but often do not require poll workers to call county election offices to authenticate that voter's eligibility; they see if the voter is listed in the e-poll book's registration files. But there were also problems with poll workers not knowing how to use the state's new iPad poll books, and also with poll workers incorrectly inserting the ballot-programming card into the new ballot-marking device computers. As the Washington Post reported, some poll workers were putting in the cards upside down, and then saying the system was broken.

In the aftermath of the June 9 primary, Raffensperger and metro Atlanta officials, Georgia Democrats and Republicans have been pointing fingers at each other and calling for investigations. However, what's clear is that Georgia election officials up and down the ladder made miscalculations about logistics heading into June 9's election — and also left many cumbersome procedures and technicalities in place.

When asked what could be fixed, Butler did not hesitate to reel off suggestions.

"They [the state] could do some things with regards to actually having to request a ballot and sign it—physically sign the application — and getting it back in. The vendor — maybe they should look at a local vendor [printing and mailing absentee ballots] versus a vendor in Arizona, that extends the mailing time," she said. "In terms of poll worker training… Not a couple of weeks before. Maybe they need to have ongoing training for anyone who works in the local BOE offices."

Meanwhile, the headline-grabbing primary day meltdown was not the end of the June 9 election in Georgia and other states holding primaries that day. More than 1 million mail-in ballots had to be processed in Georgia, starting with accepting or rejecting the signatures on their ballot envelopes.

"That will be an issue that we will look at very closely starting tomorrow," said the Lawyers' Committee's Clarke, referring to the day after the election. "We don't have information yet… That was an issue that we sued over back in 2018."

By Steven Rosenfeld

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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