We can't let Georgia's election disaster happen again

We can't let Georgia's election disaster happen again
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When Georgia’s recent election melted down — with six-hour lines, inoperable machines and too few paper ballots — the most affected locales had something in common: They were all majority-minority counties.

Across Atlanta’s Fulton County and other predominantly black neighborhoods, voting precincts didn’t open on time, machines malfunctioned, and would-be voters set up lawn chairs and waited from morning until afternoon, most wearing masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus. Many voters said they requested, but never received, absentee ballots. They were forced to join the lines or, perhaps, sit this election out. Some precincts moved unexpectedly. Another 10 percent statewide were shuttered.

Nearly 75 percent of the callers who requested help from the national Election Protection hotline on Tuesday identified themselves as African American, according to Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, whose lawyers help resolve emergency election day complaints.

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Clarke described the election as “a catastrophe.” She’s right. But here’s what’s frightening: Georgia is about to do it all again. Not just in November, but in August. 

Georgia requires a winning candidate to capture 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election eight weeks later. It appears that as many as four congressional primaries statewide, on both the Republican and Democratic sides, will require an additional runoff that’s scheduled for Aug. 11.

But why force everyone back to the polls again? Especially during a pandemic. It’s time for Georgia to adopt ranked choice voting, like dozens of other states, cities and towns across America. Ranked choice voting — where voters rank candidates in order rather than choosing just one — mimics an instant runoff. It’s the best of both worlds: Georgia voters would get the choice they deserve, but also a winner with genuine support from the widest number of people, as state law requires.

This is a civil rights issue. August in Atlanta is already a hot mess. The election officials who ran Tuesday’s elections had an extra three months to prepare when voting was postponed from March until June. Now they have 40 days to fix an unmitigated disaster. If there’s a repeat of these interminable and un-American waits during a steamy Georgia summer, it is a recipe for mass disenfranchisement. 

Once again, it will hit black voters the hardest. Even if the machines work properly in August, even if officials find enough poll workers and have enough provisional ballots on hand, voters of color still will face disproportionate waits to vote in person. According to a recent study from the nonpartisan Brennan Center, black and Latino voters face lines that take 45 percent longer than white voters. 

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The study confirms what our own eyes have seen for years. Whenever the media show photos of long lines on election day, it’s always from cities, minority communities and college campuses. It’s never the wealthy, white suburbs. LeBron James nailed it as he watched Georgia’s elections implode: “Everyone talking about ‘how d we fix this?’” he observed on Twitter. “What about asking if how we vote is structurally racist?” 

Voters of color can’t always rely on the mail. They often need to vote in person. These wait times don’t simply add barriers and make it harder to get to work or take care of kids. During a pandemic, a long line could exposure voters to a deadly disease. Ranked choice voting isn’t just a good process fix, it’s a matter of ensuring racial equity. James and other prominent African American athletes named their new voting rights organization “More Than a Vote.” 

They’re right, because it’s more than just voting — it’s the weight of that vote and how it is counted. Ranked choice voting creates a playing field where an inclusive democracy is the ultimate champion.

Khalid Pitts is the executive vice president of policy and programs at FairVote. Follow him on Twitter @KhalidPitts.