Voting reform advocates pounce on Georgia debacle to urge changes

Voting reform advocates pounce on Georgia debacle to urge changes

Voting reform advocates are warning the chaos seen during Georgia's primary elections on Tuesday portends widespread problems in November if federal measures are not taken to expand mail-in voting and address other election challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday’s elections in Georgia saw voters in some areas of Atlanta waiting hours to cast their vote due to a combination of malfunctioning voting equipment, the consolidation of in-person polling places due to the COVID-19 crisis and confusion over voting absentee. 

The voting precincts hit hardest were those with heavily minority populations, reinforcing concern about voter disenfranchisement as protests continued across the country over the police killing of George Floyd. 

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Nse Ufot, the executive director of the voting rights group New Georgia Project, told reporters Wednesday that she was “equal parts determined and pissed off,” describing the election confusion as “completely avoidable.”

“We witnessed a direct attack on our democracy and a trial run of what we are going to see,” Ufot said. “We saw people frustrated who literally quit on the spot, we saw polling locations close before voting was done and open late, hours late ... we need to make sure things are fixed on the march to November." 

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) voiced her own frustrations late Tuesday night.

“Let’s all work, hope and pray that this is not a preview of November,” she tweeted.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) announced Tuesday that he was launching an investigation to understand what steps Georgia counties need to take to ensure November elections can move forward smoothly.

Georgia’s statewide voting implementation manager, Gabriel Sterling, directed blame at county election officials for the chaos at the polls, saying in a statement on Tuesday that the “breakdown occurred at the county level.”

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“The other 157 counties faced the same difficulties of using a new system and voting during a pandemic, but they seem to have handled the issues that arose diligently and efficiently,” Sterling said. 

But county officials and some reform advocates have cast their blame on Georgia elections officials for not adequately preparing the state for the voting changes implemented on Tuesday.

Complicating issues in Georgia was the rollout of new in-person voting systems and the expansion of mail-in ballots. The state sent out absentee ballot request forms to voters to try to stem the spread of COVID-19 at the polls, with voters then required to request a ballot, lengthening the voting process. 

For those who had trouble voting absentee or who wished to vote in-person, Tuesday also marked the first major elections that involved the use of new voting equipment purchased by the state from Dominion Voting Systems. 

The equipment was purchased by Raffensperger as part of a multimillion dollar deal following a 2019 federal ruling that required Georgia to fade out less secure paperless machines by 2020.

Kay Stimson, the vice president of government affairs at Dominion, told The Hill that company teams had replaced 20 voting systems components by Tuesday night and said the company’s service call volume “slowed significantly after midday.”

Stimson pointed to concerns around training poll workers on how to use the equipment as being a major issue that led to concerns with the machines.

“Some precincts clearly experienced training-related issues early in the day and needed additional help with setting up equipment, checking in voters and activating voter cards,” Stimson said. “We plan to provide detailed call center data to the state to help identify areas of improvement from both a training and a technical support standpoint, and we will continue to work with all partners to provide assistance to county election offices.” 

Duncan Buell, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of South Carolina, told The Hill on Wednesday that he was “not that surprised” by the chaos at the polls.

“When you make a total change like this, it can be really hard the first time,” Buell said of the new machines. “Elections are going to be chaotic events, and there should be an argument that you keep things as simple as possible.”

The confusion at the polls in Georgia, coming months after problems during primary elections in Wisconsin, strengthened ongoing calls from Democrats on Capitol Hill to send states more resources to boost mail-in voting and address other election challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We need to make sure states have the resources they need to give Americans options to make their voices heard at the ballot box simple solutions like voting by mail and expanding access to the polls through early voting so people don’t face long lines,” Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharCalifornia Dems back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package MORE (D-Minn.) said in a statement.

The former Democratic presidential candidate added that “when we don’t properly fund our elections and develop plans to protect voters, Americans often in communities of color get disenfranchised and that’s what happened today in Georgia.”

Congress appropriated $400 million to states to address coronavirus-related election challenges as part of the $2 trillion stimulus package signed into law in March. The new House-passed stimulus bill includes $3.6 billion more for elections, but is stalled in the Senate. 

“We need more poll workers, we need that funding to help modernize and make our elections more efficient, we also need more funding to make sure we have more paper ballots at precincts,” Aunna Dennis, the executive director of nonpartisan advocacy group Common Cause Georgia, told reporters Wednesday. “We need the Senate to stop sitting on it and give it out to states that are really in desperate need of funding to modernize our elections.”

Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenDemocrats accuse Barr of helping Trump distract from coronavirus State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November FEC commissioner resigns, leaving agency without a quorum again MORE (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the elections-focused House Administration Committee, told The Hill that the Georgia primary elections made it “clear, once again, that state and local election officials simply do not have the resources necessary to carry out safe and orderly elections in the midst of the deadly pandemic.”

While Republicans have been largely opposed to election changes during the pandemic, in particular to expanding mail-in voting, Rep. Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisWatchdog calls for probe into Gohmert 'disregarding public health guidance' on COVID-19 Massie plans to donate plasma after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Key 48 hours loom as negotiators push for relief deal MORE (R-Ill.), the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, urged states to “be realistic and plan accordingly” following issues during other state primaries last week. 

New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice has led the charge in warning of threats to elections in 2020, with experts estimating that states would need at least $4 billion to put on elections.

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Liz Howard, counsel at the Brennan Center and a former deputy commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, told The Hill that “simple backup plans” like having paper ballots at polling sites could help stem the threat of voter disenfranchisement in Georgia and other states. 

“The big takeaway is that election officials across the country are in dire need of additional financial support from the federal government as many struggle to transform how they administer elections, educate voters and recruit, train and retrain poll workers,” Howard said.

Buell pointed to Georgia as a warning for other election officials.

“Everybody ought to sit up and start making long lists of things that will go wrong and how they are going to react to mitigate the damage when things go wrong,” Buell said.