ATLANTA – Coronavirus infections sidelined some poll workers and scared away others. New workers were trained online instead of in person. And when Election Day arrived, trouble with new voting equipment and social-distancing precautions forced voters to wait in long lines, sometimes for hours.
The resulting chaos during Tuesday's primary elections in Georgia resulted in a national embarrassment and for the second time since 2018 raised questions about the state's ability to conduct fair elections. It also set off a scramble to identify and fix problems before the high-stakes November general election.
“It scares me," said Cathy Cox, a Democrat who oversaw Georgia elections as secretary of state from 1999 through 2007. "But hopefully it was such a traumatic experience for so many people, and appears to be such a black eye for Georgia, that it will ring the bell for elected officials to make significant changes.”
Tuesday's breakdown drew the second round of stinging criticism for Georgia election officials since 2018, when the state's closely watched gubernatorial election was marred by hourslong waits at some polling sites, security breaches that exposed voter information and accusations that strict ID requirements and registration errors suppressed turnout. That led to lawsuits and changes to state law that included the $120 million switch to a new election system.
Much of the outcry over the 2018 election targeted Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who still served as secretary of state when he ran for governor two years ago. Asked what went wrong in Tuesday’s election during an interview with WSB-TV, Kemp said “I think we’ll have to wait and see. I mean, certainly I think what happened in many areas of the state is unacceptable.”
“It will be up to those in the election community to get those fixed,” Kemp said.
Like two years ago, activists say voting problems seemed to disproportionately affect areas with large numbers of minority voters in cities such as Atlanta and Savannah.
"We saw those overwhelming issues in black and brown communities predominantly,” Aklima Khondoker, state director of the advocacy group All Voting Is Local told reporters.
Votes were still being counted Wednesday, including absentee ballots that topped 1 million — the result of many voters trying to avoid trips to the polls because of the virus.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, blamed local election officials. He said he plans to ask lawmakers to give state officials greater oversight of county election offices, including “authority to directly intervene and require management changes."
Metro Atlanta appeared to have the worst voting delays, with some voters reporting five-hour waits and and others giving up and leaving in frustration when confronted with long, slow-moving lines. Voting hours were extended, and the last voters didn't cast their ballots until around midnight.
“I did expect long lines. I wasn’t expecting it to be so unorganized,” said Kiersten Berry, 34, of Atlanta, who waited more than 3 1/2 hours to vote Tuesday morning.
Georgia was in the midst of an ambitious statewide effort to replace outdated voting equipment when the coronavirus hit in March.
Fulton County Elections Director Rick Barron largely blamed the pandemic. Two poll managers tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days, and other election workers simply did not show up, Barron said.
In-person training on the new voting system was held early in the year, but recent refresher sessions were held online because poll workers weren't comfortable attending in person as the virus surged in Georgia. The threat also meant many polling sites — such as at senior centers — could not be used, forcing consolidations. The county had 164 polling places instead of the planned 198.
On Election Day, poll workers who had not put their hands on the new machines in months got confused, Barron said, and their calls overloaded the county election office. There were instances of scanners powering down or jamming, he said, and in some places too many voting machines were plugged into the same circuit, causing them to flicker.
Barron's elections office was also flooded with 92,000 absentee ballots — compared with fewer than 1,000 in the 2016 primaries. Many voters have said they requested mail-in ballots and never received them.
Georgia had delayed its primary twice — presidential primary votes had initially been scheduled for March 24 — to give more time to prepare. While there were reports of equipment failures, only about 20 components such as scanners, printers and touchscreens were replaced by Tuesday evening out of 30,000 voting machines in use statewide, said Kay Stimson, vice president for government affairs for Dominion Voting Systems, the vendor for Georgia's new system.
State election officials said a few polling places in metro Atlanta's Gwinnett County opened late because officials didn't realize the new machines were bigger than the old ones and delivery trucks had to make extra trips. In Fulton County, some workers couldn't get machines to work because they were inserting voter cards upside-down.
County election officials countered that the state should have provided more resources for staffing and training. Cox, who held Raffensperger's job more than a decade ago, agreed that state officials share in the blame.
Cox oversaw the rollout of Georgia's first electronic voting system in 2002. Now the dean of Mercer University’s law school, she said the state needs to fund more election workers, additional training and voter education to ensure voting goes smoothly in the fall.
“I would not be trying to pick a fight with the counties," Cox said. “I would be rolling up my sleeves and saying, ‘Let’s all of us in the election community figure out every step that had a problem and how we can make this work for November.’”
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia. Associated Press writers Ben Nadler, Sudhin Thanawala, Jeff Martin and Christina Cassidy in Atlanta also contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the presidential primary vote was initially scheduled for March 24, not March 9.