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‘A complete meltdown’: Long lines snarl voting in Georgia primary amid coronavirus

People in Atlanta wait in line to vote in Georgia's primary election Tuesday.
People in Atlanta wait to vote Tuesday in Georgia’s primary election.
(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

Voters endured heat, pouring rain and waits as long as five hours on Tuesday to cast ballots in Georgia, demonstrating a fierce desire to participate in the democratic process while raising questions about the emerging battleground state’s ability to manage elections in November when the White House is at stake.

“It’s really disheartening to see a line like this in an area with predominantly Black residents,” said Benaiah Shaw, a 25-year-old Black man, as he cast a ballot in Atlanta.

A confluence of events disrupted primary elections for president, U.S. Senate and dozens of other contests. There were problems with Georgia’s new voting machines, which combine touchscreens with scanned paper ballots.

The polls were also staffed by fewer workers because of coronavirus concerns. A reduced workforce contributed to officials consolidating polling places, which disproportionately affected neighborhoods with high concentrations of people of color. Long lines were also reported in whiter suburban areas.

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Some voters said they requested mail-in ballots that never arrived, forcing them to go to polling places and adding to the lines. One state lawmaker, Democratic Rep. William Boddie of Atlanta, said there was a “complete meltdown.”

Turnout was high. After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing demonstrations that swept cities including Atlanta, voters said they were determined to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

As George Floyd’s family gathered for his funeral in Houston, where he grew up, they vowed to continue the movement sparked by his death.

“Too many people died for me to have this opportunity,” said Stephanie Bush, a 49-year-old Black independent voter in Atlanta. “So for me not to stick it out would be a dishonor to them.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden easily won the state’s Democratic presidential primary. He was facing no real opposition but hoped to post a strong showing among Georgia’s diverse electorate to show his strength heading into the general election. President Trump was the only choice on the GOP presidential ballot.

But the developments were troubling heading into the fall presidential campaign, which will attract even more voters. Biden and Trump are expected to fiercely compete in this rapidly changing state. That leaves officials, who have already been criticized for attempting to suppress the vote, with less than five months to turn things around.

Republican leaders blamed problems on officials in Fulton and DeKalb counties, which are Democratic strongholds with significant Black populations.

“It has nothing to do with what we’re doing in the rest of Georgia,” Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told the Associated Press.

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Republican State House Speaker David Ralston directed leaders of the House Governmental Affairs Committee to investigate the “unacceptable deficiencies” across the state, particularly in Fulton County.

Voters leaving one Fulton County polling place offered words of encouragement to the many people waiting in line well past the already-extended poll closing time of 9 p.m.

“Let’s vote this guy out of office,” one said, in a reference to Trump.

Volunteers handed out bags of popcorn, chips and candy. People in line smoked cigarettes and cursed the wait. Some said they’d tried to vote earlier in the day but left because the line wrapped around the block.

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Fulton County election director Richard Barron said the pandemic and large increase in mail voting “created unique staffing and logistical challenges.” But he called Tuesday’s election a “learning experience” and said his team had “identified several areas for improvement” in November.

Democrats insisted the issues were widespread. About 250 miles from Atlanta, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said he was “inundated” with phone calls from voters reporting “extensive delays.”

Kelsey Luker reads as she waits in line to vote in Atlanta on Tuesday. Luker said she had been in line for almost two hours.
Kelsey Luker reads as she waits in line to vote in Atlanta on Tuesday. Luker said she had been in line for almost two hours.
(Associated Press)

The Trump campaign seized on the problems to amplify the president’s opposition to expanded mail voting this fall.

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“The chaos in Georgia is a direct result of the reduction in the number of in-person polling places and over reliance on mail-in voting,” said Trump campaign senior counsel Justin Clark.

The president has said mail voting puts GOP politicians at a disadvantage: “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting,” Trump tweeted in April, stating without evidence that it increases the risk of fraud. “...and, for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

The Biden campaign called the voting problems in Georgia “completely unacceptable” and a threat to free and fair elections.

“We only have a few months left until voters around the nation head to the polls again, and efforts should begin immediately to ensure that every Georgian — and every American — is able to safely exercise their right to vote,” said Rachana Desai Martin, the campaign’s national director for voter protection and senior counsel.

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Americans also voted in primaries in West Virginia, South Carolina and Nevada. Long lines also plagued voting in Las Vegas, where voters told the AP that they had been waiting four and five hours in some cases, even as state election officials suggested wait times reached three hours only in one location.

But the tumult in Georgia garnered much of the attention, reinforcing concerns about managing elections amid the coronavirus.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said voters in line at one of Atlanta’s largest precincts reported all the machines were down. She encouraged voters not to give up.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ response to the George Floyd protests is in the spotlight as she is being vetted as one of Joe Biden’s vice president possibilities.

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“If you are in line, PLEASE do not allow your vote to be suppressed,” the Democratic mayor tweeted.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said Tuesday he wasn’t surprised that Georgia had voting problems, given that the state’s elections chief is a Republican. He noted that GOP Gov. Brian Kemp faced allegations of suppressing votes when he oversaw the 2018 elections as secretary of state.

“Republicans want to ensure that it is as hard as possible for people to vote,” Perez said in an interview.

Kemp was largely silent about the voting problems on Tuesday, aside from retweeting a message from his wife urging people to vote.

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Georgia hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992, but the state is being closely watched by Trump and Biden. The president has virtually no path to reelection without victory in Georgia.

How to reshape the nation’s police forces has become a major campaign issue. President Trump hopes to portray Joe Biden as extreme.

A nearly four-hour wait outside an Atlanta polling site shook Ross Wakefield’s faith in the upcoming elections and voters’ ability to participate.

“It doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in the future,” said Wakefield, a 28-year-old white software engineer. “Personally, I feel like we’re struggling as a country right now to hear people who really need to be heard, and this does not give me a lot of confidence that we’re doing that.”


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