Georgia election administrators were working their way through hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots Wednesday as advocates argued the long lines that kept polls open past 10 p.m. in some places the previous night reinforced the need for more action in Washington to ensure November’s election goes smoothly.
“What happened yesterday was a catastrophe,” Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff said. “It was an embarrassment, and it was an affront to basic constitutional principles.”
Ossoff, who was declared the winner of the Democratic primary late Wednesday, was part of a chorus of Democrats who said the confusion at the polls in the Peach State represented deliberate voter disenfranchisement. They noted that many of the longest lines were concentrated in black and brown Atlanta suburbs where hundreds of polling places had already been closed after the 2013 Supreme Court decision that overturned a section of the Voting Rights Act requiring federal approval before changing voting laws in Georgia and other states.
Republican state officials have shot back that it was up to county officials — many of them in areas controlled by Democrats — to ensure that elections flowed smoothly. The state, however, had introduced new voting machines for the election. Inadequate training on the new equipment and consolidated polling sites because of the coronavirus contributed to long lines despite efforts by the state to encourage voting by mail.
Georgia’s problems evoked similar scenes in Wisconsin after the state, embroiled in a partisan dispute between the Democratic governor and the GOP-controlled Legislature, held in-person elections April 7 during a statewide stay-at-home order. Other states have worked to rapidly switch to mostly mail-in ballots to protect voters from the virus, and some saw long lines of voters who didn’t get their ballots or didn’t want to use them. Long lines were reported Tuesday in Nevada, for example, and returns there were delayed as well.
The debate comes as the issue of voting rights was already shaping up to become central to the 2020 presidential election, when continued concerns over in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic are expected to collide with potentially historic turnout by voters inflamed by economic uncertainty, nationwide protests against racial inequalities and impassioned opinions about President Donald Trump.
Ballot arrived too late
Ossoff, a former Capitol Hill staffer turned documentary film producer, said he and his wife requested absentee ballots a month ago but when they did not receive them, they had to wait in line for five hours Friday to vote early.
“The state of Georgia promised that every voter that wanted could vote by mail,” he said. “I wrote privately and publicly to election officials, called election officials. I’m on the ballot [and] never got ballots until Election Day.”
Ossoff held a commanding lead over former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, 51 percent to 15 percent, in the seven-person Democratic Senate primary when The Associated Press called the race Wednesday, with 98 percent of precincts reporting. By clearing 50 percent, he avoids a runoff and will next face Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue.
The AP has called all the state’s House races, but not every candidate declared a loser was willing to concede. Some of the biggest problems at the polls were reported in the purple 7th District in suburban Atlanta, where there were competitive primaries on both sides for the open seat.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Voter Protection Project, a left-leaning group that backs candidates who support voting rights, sent a fundraising appeal for progressive Nabilah Islam, saying she was within 700 votes of qualifying for the 7th District Democratic runoff and needed help to ensure the remaining 30,000 ballots would be counted.
Islam was in third in the six-person race with 13 percent of the vote, behind university professor and 2018 nominee Carolyn Bourdeaux with 46 percent and state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero with 14 percent.
The AP called the Republican primary for Rich McCormick, an emergency room doctor who got a boost for his post-coronavirus Trump support. He held a decisive lead, 55 percent to 18 percent, over state Sen. Renee Unterman, with 99 percent of precincts reporting.
In the neighboring 6th District, Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath, who was unopposed in her primary, seized on the chaos to strike an early blow against Republican nominee Karen Handel, who tweeted Monday that the state “became a national model for voter integrity” while she was Georgia’s secretary of state from 2007 to 2010.
McBath then accused Handel of contributing to voter suppression, saying she was “found to have violated the Voting Rights Act” while in office, without offering specifics.
“For Karen Handel to cite this as a model for voter integrity is despicable,” McBath said in a statement.
Handel, who won a 2017 special election over Ossoff for the seat and then lost it the following year to McBath, won a five-person GOP primary Tuesday with 75 percent of the vote.
Congressional action uncertain
The House passed a bill in December that would restore the core of the Voting Rights Act. With that measure almost certain not to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Senate, voting rights advocates focused Wednesday on calls for Congress to send states additional money to help prepare for November.
House Democrats initially proposed $4 billion for election assistance, and Congress allocated $400 million as part of a broad coronavirus economic relief package in March. Georgia received $10.87 million of that money and had to provide $2.1 million in matching funds.
Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, called on the Senate to act on additional funding.
“We need that funding to help modernize and make our elections more efficient,” Dennis said on a press call with other Georgia advocacy groups Wednesday.
House Democrats included an additional $3.6 billion in election grants in a $3 trillion package passed last month, but the measure has stalled in the Senate. Democrats have also pushed for measures to expand voting by mail and early in-person voting, but Republicans have slammed those proposals as attempts to federalize elections.
It’s not clear if and when lawmakers may agree on more funding to help states administer upcoming elections.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby did not directly answer questions about whether the issues in Georgia demonstrated a need for more federal resources.
“I don’t think we ought to be federalizing, or trying to federalize through the backdoor, elections,” the Alabama Republican told reporters Wednesday. “We should try to do everything we can in the state to run the elections process, to make sure they’re straight and honest. That’s the main thing.”
Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.