Delayed results were expected in some key primary races in Georgia on Tuesday as the state grappled with new voting technology and the combined challenges of a surge in voter interest and reduced polling place capacity because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Reports of hourslong lines and breakdowns in voting machines were concentrated in suburban Atlanta, including the 6th and 7th districts that are among the country’s most competitive House seats. That could also hold up results in a crowded Democratic primary to pick a challenger to Republican Sen. David Perdue.
The problems were an ominous sign for November, when Georgia is expected to be a battleground for the White House and, with both seats on the ballot, control of the Senate. In addition to Perdue, appointed GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler faces a November jungle primary to keep her seat.
“They want to discourage you. They want you to give up and go home,” Democratic Senate hopeful Jon Ossoff tweeted. “It’s not right. It’s not just. STAY IN THOSE LINES. Defy voter suppression.”
Ossoff, who lost a special House election in 2017 that drew national attention, was among seven Democratic candidates in the Senate primary. Georgia law requires primary candidates to get more than 50 percent of the vote to secure a nomination outright. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters will face each other in an Aug. 11 runoff.
Freshman Democrat Lucy McBath, who flipped the 6th District in 2018, called the polling problems “unacceptable” in a tweet with the hashtag “#VoterSuppression.”
“Our citizens have a right to vote. Plain and simple,” she said. McBath was unopposed in her primary, but there was a five-way Republican battle to challenge her that included former Rep. Karen Handel, whom McBath unseated in 2018.
Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state, blamed the problems on counties that did not adequately deal with the realities of holding elections during the pandemic.
Sterling told CNN that multiple places that normally host polling sites, including schools, senior centers and veterans halls, were not available this time. That led to some sites becoming “megaprecincts,” which attracted long lines. Yet in some of them, he said, there were 15 voting machines, while social distancing rules only allowed four voters to enter at a time.
The state was also putting new voting machines into use, and many new workers had to be trained because senior citizen volunteers were not available, Sterling said.
“It’s very difficult to do hands-on training with equipment when you can’t get more than 10 people in a room,” he said. Georgia also faced unprecedented demand, he said, noting that 1.3 million people had already voted before Tuesday by taking advantage of three weeks of early voting and absentee ballot applications mailed to every active voter.
Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar reacted to the delays by urging the Senate to take up legislation she is sponsoring to expand early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee mail voting and provide states with funding to improve the safety of elections during the coronavirus pandemic.
“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,” the former presidential hopeful said in a statement.
By late afternoon Tuesday, Columbus County, which is in the 2nd District, and Gwinnett County in the 7th District had already extended closing times for some polling places from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. to allow everyone in line to vote. Some polling places in Fulton County followed afterward, while some in DeKalb County were kept open until 10:10 p.m. They cover not only parts of Bath’s 6th District but the open 7th District seat, where the race is rated a Toss-up by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. Seven Republicans and six Democrats are bidding for that seat.
“Halfway through Election Day, our state’s leaders have already abdicated any responsibility for this fiasco,” tweeted Democratic state Sen. Zahra Karinshak, who is running for the 7th District.
According to The Associated Press, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Monday had predicted longer lines and said his office would not begin to release results until the last precinct closed.
“To get a good concept of where we are with the election — who won, who lost, or who’s in the runoff, things like that — I would think that could take upward of a couple days in some of these really tightly contested elections,” Raffensperger said, according to the AP.
More than 1.2 million people requested absentee ballots, shattering state records. But with widespread reports of delays in receiving them, thousands of voters crowded polling places that were short-staffed and slowed down by efforts to sanitize equipment and enforce social distancing, according to local reports and interviews with election observers.
Those problems were compounded by the introduction of new voting machines that combine a touch screen with scanned paper ballots. It was unclear whether the machines had malfunctioned or were not working because poll workers had not been properly trained on how to use them.