Georgia officials call for investigations into primary day voting issues

Georgia's primary election was off to a rocky start on Tuesday morning as voters, primarily in the populous Atlanta area, have been met with long lines and delays.

(CNN) — Georgia‘s secretary of state and state House speaker on Tuesday called for investigations into voting delays in Atlanta and across Georgia on the day of the state’s primary.

The announcement of the investigations came after a rocky start for the state’s primary on Tuesday morning as voters, primarily in the populous Atlanta area, were met with long lines and delays.

“The voting situation today in certain precincts in Fulton and DeKalb counties is unacceptable,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, said. “My office has opened an investigation to determine what these counties need to do to resolve these issues before November’s election.” The city of Atlanta is encompassed in the two counties.

Separately, Speaker David Ralston has directed the House Governmental Affairs Committee to investigate irregularities in Tuesday’s primary election across Georgia, particularly in Fulton County, where a majority of issues have been reported.

“The sanctity of our elections — being free and fair — is the very foundation of our system of government. Our elections must be efficient and voters must be confident that their votes will be properly counted,” Ralston, a Republican, said in a statement on Tuesday. “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.”

Prior to Tuesday’s election, the State Election Board was already investigating Fulton County for its handling of absentee ballots though the State Election Board.

“Fulton County has made unfortunate decisions that the state did not agree with. For example, they decided to process email applications last. Fulton County’s handling of the current election is under investigation by the State Election Board,” Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey told CNN on Monday.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was one of the first officials to highlight the issues early Tuesday morning, after receiving reports that several voting machines throughout the city of Atlanta and Fulton County may not have been working.

“This seems to be happening throughout Atlanta and perhaps throughout the county. People have been in line since before 7:00 am this morning,” Bottoms tweeted. In another tweet, Bottoms called on Fulton County officials to “please address this ASAP.” She then told voters not to turn away from voting.

“If you are in line, PLEASE do not allow your vote to be suppressed. PLEASE stay in line. They should offer you a provisional ballot if the machines are not working,” she tweeted.

State election officials have blamed inexperienced election workers for the problems as well as safety issues related to the coronavirus, including the heightened use of absentee ballots, and have pushed back on suggestions that malfunctioning equipment is causing delays. Several voters with whom CNN has spoken, however, have said they were having difficulty using election machines.

The Secretary of State’s office confirmed to CNN that Fulton County voting hours have been extended until 9 p.m. Tuesday. Chatham County, which includes Savannah, has experienced issues as well, and will extended hours until 9 p.m. in nearly 40 precincts.

Machines were reported down at multiple locations by voters, including at First Baptist Church in downtown Powder Springs in Cobb County. Voter Monica Hickman told CNN she was in line starting at about 6:45 a.m. and was finally able to vote about two hours later due to 10 machines being down.

“It was after 7:30 when we went inside the voting area only to be told the machines were down. We had to use provisional ballots. I filled it out and left it there,” Hickman said. “When it’s time to vote, everything should work properly because we’re living in critical times and this is one of the ways our voices can be heard.”

Dan Upshaw was in line to vote at the Joseph McGhee Tennis Center in Atlanta starting at 8 a.m. because poll workers told him they only had one functioning voting machine.

“We were told Fulton County was on site working on them,” he told CNN. “Last official update was that there were three machines working, but voters are saying there are only two.”

When he spoke to CNN, he believed he had about 45 minutes longer to wait until he could vote.

“Some voters are leaving early,” he said.

Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting implementation manager, disputed in a statement released by the secretary of state’s office that there were equipment issues.

“We have reports of poll workers not understanding setup or how to operate voting equipment. While these are unfortunate, they are not issues of the equipment but a function of counties engaging in poor planning, limited training, and failures of leadership. Well over 2,000 precincts are functioning normally throughout the state of Georgia,” Sterling said.

Robb Pitts, the chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, told CNN some issues are due to staffing shortages as poll workers have declined to participate due to the coronavirus. The average age of a poll worker in Georgia is 70, according to the secretary of state’s office, an age group that is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

“We had a problem where seven people who would normally work at the polls, six of them decided they didn’t want to work because of the virus, so we had to scramble at the last minute to find new workers,” he said.

Georgia State Rep. David Dreyer, who represents a portion of Fulton County, had tried to recruit hundreds of poll workers on Twitter.

“Fulton County needs 250 people to staff elections on Tuesday,” Dreyer said in a Saturday tweet. “We need you. Please spread the word.”

Pitts also suggested that “there’s a lot of technology involved now and a lot of our poll workers have typically been retired people and the technology can be a challenge sometime.”

Raffensperger has repeatedly said that the pandemic was going to slow down the voting process, noting that in addition to delays due to social distancing and disinfecting practices, the state has fewer poll workers to man precincts due to concerns over the pandemic.

“With our health protocols, we are guaranteed to see lines tomorrow. That is why I have spent so much time trying to get voters to vote absentee,” Raffensperger said Monday.

He noted that lines will look longer as social distancing is enforced, but also cautioned the lines will be moving more slowly due to fewer people being allowed in each room and the time needed to disinfect between each use of a machine.

In addition, voters have been asked to use a stylus, rather than their fingers, to operate the touchscreens. There are also fewer polling places in many counties. Some areas will see “mega polling sites” with more than 10,000 voters assigned to the site.

Complicating matters for Fulton County, where most of Atlanta is located, have been delays in sending out absentee ballots and an unexpected election official’s death due to coronavirus. There have been a significant number of complaints from voters in Fulton County who requested a ballot via email but still hadn’t received it the Sunday before the election.

A source in the secretary of state’s office conceded that some counties in the state are straining under the volume of absentee ballots that have been received so far. Fewer than 40,000 people typically vote by absentee ballot in Georgia, but already, the state has received more than 1.2 million absentee ballots, a primary participation record, Raffensperger has said. Of those ballots cast, 951,970 were mail-in ballots, according to numbers provided by his office.

Ninety-six percent of ballots that were requested had been recorded as delivered to voters as of last week, the secretary of state’s office said. Sterling previously told CNN that the last batch of ballots were in the mail as of June 1. USPS later confirmed in an email to CNN that ballots were being delivered to voters last Wednesday.

Samuel Tillman, the chairman of the DeKalb County Board of Elections, also reported problems on Tuesday. He blamed it on technical issues with the “new state-issued voting machines”

“These issues are being seen statewide and are not isolated to DeKalb County,” Tillman said in a statement. “Any voter who have been turned away without casting a ballot should go to any precinct in DeKalb County and ask for a provisional paper ballot.”

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights group, have called for extended voting hours in the county.

“DeKalb County, Georgia officials are conceding that they have FAILED voters today. We are demanding that officials voluntarily extend polls hours now,” said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the group, tweeted on Tuesday.

This year’s election has presented new obstacles for the state amid the pandemic. Georgia’s primary was postponed twice over health concerns regarding Covid-19 exposure, and the state has mailed absentee ballot requests to the state’s 6.9 million registered voters.

Tuesday’s election includes the presidential preference primary, general primary, nonpartisan general election and a special election. Democrats are looking to defeat two Republican senators in 2020 in a state where a Democratic senator has not been elected in 20 years.

In a change from years past, Georgia will not be releasing results until all of the precincts are closed, meaning it will likely be later Tuesday night before results start coming in. Absentee mail-in ballots must be received by county elections offices by 7 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Amid Tuesday’s election issues, voting rights groups criticized the Georgia secretary of state. Fair Fight, the voting rights group founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, called the problems a “disaster” while blaming Raffensperger.

“Responsibility for this disaster falls squarely on the hands of [Raffensperger] who has failed to provide Georgia’s counties with the training needed to conduct today’s election. He had months to get this right. (Original election date was March 24). He failed,” the group tweeted on Tuesday.

Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo in a lengthy Twitter thread said Tuesday’s voting issues were “all predictable” and “preventable” due to actions taken by Raffensperger.

“The SOS chose to move unfunded mandates and massive quantities of mail through counties, rather than ensuring uniformity across the state through the proper resourcing of elections centrally via the state,” Groh-Wargo said on Twitter.

Groh-Wargo went on to cite the controversial election between Abrams and current Republican Gov. Brian Kemp as “a similar meltdown in the fall of 2018 due to incompetence and malfeasance.” Kemp narrowly beat Abrams in that election, which was marred by claims of voter suppression that included ballots being rejected over the state’s “exact match” standard and voter registration issues for many African American voters.

Abrams weighed in on the issue, tweeting, “Georgians deserve better.”

“I voted today bc of absentee ballot defects. From Jasper to Fulton to Coffee & Chatham, long lines, inoperable machines & under-resourced communities are being hurt. @GaSecofState owns this disaster. He must stop finger-pointing and fix it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, characterized Georgia’s primary as “a self-inflicted mess.”

“The stress on our election processes from COVID-19 and the need for social distancing alone do not justify what we are witnessing on the ground,” Abudu said in a statement.

Abudu noted that the SPLC’s Election Protection team has been getting reports of average wait times in some locations spanning three to four hours, machines not being delivered to the proper polling locations and poll workers not being given the sufficient amount of training regarding any issues that could arise.

She called on state leaders to learn from Tuesday’s election problems and to address the voting process “immediately when state legislators reconvene next Monday for their legislative session.”