Over the last few months, COVID-19 has touched nearly every facet of life for residents of Chatham County, the state of Georgia and the country.
Tasks as mundane as grocery shopping or picking up prescriptions have become potentially life-threatening activities for the most at-risk population. Schools adapted to online learning, and more recently, college and high school seniors graduated in socially distanced settings. Elected officials at every level grappled with tough decisions, torn between health concerns and a struggling economy.
But before last Tuesday, Georgia had yet to see how an election amid a global pandemic would pan out.
It wasn’t pretty.
The myriad issues surrounding Georgia’s primary election became a topic of national conversation after voter confusion, equipment errors and finger-pointing at the state level on election day gave way to accusations of voter suppression as the week unfolded.
In Chatham County, the Board of Elections is still counting votes — mostly due to the unprecedented absentee voting turnout, spurred by an effort to lower the risk of contracting COVID-19 from voting in person.
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The virus restricted the amount of training received by poll workers and poll managers, who are usually retirees — the most at-risk population when it comes to COVID-19. On election day, that lack of preparation was apparent, when a third of Chatham’s polling places had issues with setting up Georgia’s new $104 million voting system, purchased to replace the state’s 17-year-old electronic equipment.
The primary was set to be a dry run for the new machines ahead of the much larger general election in November, where Georgia could prove to be a pivotal state in many federal contests, including the presidential race.
But, as it did with day-to-day life, COVID-19 derailed the first large-scale test of the new voting system.
Georgia’s general primary election, originally slated for March 24, was delayed until May 19. Then, on April 10, it was delayed again until June 9.
There were many questions to be answered about holding an election during a pandemic. How would officials make social distancing possible at the polls? Would voters who had never made use of an absentee ballot be willing to do so now? How could the election be conducted safely?
The Secretary of State’s office made an unprecedented move in March. All 6.9 million registered, active voters in the state were mailed an absentee ballot request form, including 202,496 in Chatham County. It was an effort to keep the in-person voting to a minimum to slow the spread of COVID-19. Registered inactive voters — those who hadn’t voted in the last two general elections — had to request a ballot.
In Chatham County, around 60% of the turnout came from the surge in absentee ballots — a total of 30,839. In the 2016 general primary, the total turnout — including early voting, absentee ballots, provisional ballots and election day voting — was only 23,750.
Board of Elections Chairman Tom Mahoney said the push for absentee ballots was the right call, though the counting process for absentee ballots takes more time than any other form of voting.
“We agree with setting up and encouraging a push for absentee ballots, but the absentee ballots have to be processed in the Board of Registrar’s Office, before they’re even delivered to the Board of Elections, before they can be hand-processed by the Board of Elections’ absentee clerks, before they can be then tabulated, ” Mahoney said. “All of those things are labor-intensive things.”
Fair Fight, a voting rights group founded by 2018 Democratic candidate for Georgia governor, Stacey Abrams, also agreed with the push for absentee ballots. Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo said Brad Raffensperger made the right choice, though he placed too much pressure on county leadership when it comes to counting the absentee ballots.
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“He did one good thing, which we really support. We really support sending applications out,” Groh-Wargo said. “We thought that was a really good move. But then, he stuck it on the county. They didn’t give them additional tech support. He didn’t give them staffing support or money or resources to do what they needed.
“In a high vote-by-mail environment, we really need to take a look at more efficient, better-run processing rather than throwing more on 159 counties that are underfunded.”
In Chatham County, they’re still counting ballots.
By Thursday afternoon, the BOE announced they had counted 5,503 advanced voting ballots, and 19,728 election day ballots. But the real bear was the absentee ballots. Of the 30,839 received, only 4,365 absentee ballots had been counted by 3:20 p.m. Thursday.
Mahoney said the counting will continue through the weekend, and likely into next week.
“We will not finish until probably mid-next week. And then we won’t certify that election until the end of the week at the earliest,” Mahoney said on Friday. “We’re still in the middle of an election. We haven’t moved on. And we won’t move on. We’re going to continue to keep our nose to the grindstone and get this election completed and certified. That’s our legal responsibility, our responsibility to voters.”
‘Nobody really knew what they were doing’
The Salvation Army on Bee Road has long been a polling place, but on Tuesday, voters cast their ballots in the building’s gym instead of a smaller, nearby assembly hall where voting usually takes place. The move made sense for social distancing, but the gym had few electrical outlets. Some weren’t working.
Then the technician didn’t arrive on time. When he did arrive, he didn’t have enough extension cords to plug in all 14 voting machines. At first, only two or three were working. By about 9:30 a.m., six of 14 machines were working. By then, the wait had increased to two hours and the line outside snaked toward the back corner of the building.
“We were trying to get the machines up and running,” said poll manager Meloni Byrd. “With these new machines it’s very difficult, and nobody really knew what they were doing. It was a bunch of complications. But we’ve gotten it slowly moving. But learning these machines is the biggest part as far as set up.”
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The polling place didn’t open until 7:40 a.m. The first voter didn’t cast a ballot until 8:11 a.m. By 9 a.m. only a handful of those waiting in an increasingly long line in the sun had voted, said Joanna Shepherd, an Emory law professor who volunteered as a Democratic poll watcher and was assigned to that precinct.
"They didn’t check. Like this room actually doesn’t have enough plugs, physical plugs, and even some other ones they have, like that top plug doesn’t work,” Shepherd said, gesturing behind her. “And there weren’t enough extension cords. And so it’s like, the equipment was here without the infrastructure to actually help make it my work.”
Voter Shameka Jackson said the voting machine didn’t accept her choices. She checked the printout and had to re-do her ballot when it showed many offices left blank where Jackson had chosen a candidate.
Voter Jeff Ofgang came out shaking his head.
“There was fighting over who was in line first, who was 65 or older, who wasn’t, who has to go to work,” he said. “The poll workers seemed less than familiar with the process, less than ready for the new process. It’s just kind of discouraging overall.”
Two weeks ahead of the election, the Board of Elections was down by 22 polling places. Senior centers were out of the question, and a few polling places are not large enough to support the social distancing requirements.
In a typical election, Chatham County has 92 polling places. This time, there were only 90.
The alternate polling locations were set in stone a few days before the primary election, but on election day, another pandemic-born issue came to light: training.
Like everyone else in the country, poll workers and poll managers had been dealt a COVID-shaped blow.
The usual training couldn’t be conducted. Classes had to be reduced in size to make way for social distancing, and the extensive hands-on training required for new machines and the new voting system was difficult to conduct safely.
Groh-Wargo said when Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law last April House Bill 316 authorizing the purchase of the new voting system with the intention of rolling the system out within a year, there were bound to be problems.
“No matter what, the lines were going to happen, the equipment problems, the lack of technical support and lack of training was going to happen. That plan shoved way too much on the counties,” Groh-Wargo said.
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Chatham County Board of Elections member Antwan Lang said the issues he was seeing early on election day largely stemmed from a lack of training.
"Most of the issues are just user error. Not really the machine, but the person using the machine may not know exactly how the machine works,” Lang said.
By noon, a note from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office was released claiming the new voting machines were not at fault, but local leadership was.
“So far we have no reports of any actual equipment issues,” that statement read. “We do have reports of equipment being delivered to the wrong locations and delivered late. We have reports of poll workers not understanding setup or how to operate voting equipment. While these are unfortunate, they are not issues of the equipment but a function of counties engaging in poor planning, limited training and failures of leadership. Well over 2,000 precincts are functioning normally throughout the state of Georgia.”
Mahoney’s response was less pointed.
“I don’t feel there is a finger of blame to point here. I’m not willing to say the machines were flawless with no problems,” Mahoney said. “That has been my experience with new machines. Every time my office gets new computers, there are issues. It takes time to get these new systems in place and working.”
Mahoney defended the county’s training while navigating the challenges of COVID-19 amid an election. He said poll workers received less training than poll managers, but both groups received training on how to set up and operate the new voting system.
“I’m sure there’s human error, too. I just don’t think those things are anybody’s fault or anything to squabble about,” he said. “Instead, we all ought to come together and realize the herculean efforts that have been done to roll out a completely new voting system on such a short time frame during a global pandemic.”
Looking back, looking forward
While the BOE continues to count votes, a runoff election looms. As of right now, races in which none of the candidates got above 50% of the vote will be decided on Aug. 11.
Groh-Wargo said after seeing the reaction from state leaders after Tuesday, she’s cautiously optimistic about the future of voting in Georgia.
“I do think we have reached a potential tipping point that this is unacceptable, and we’re not going to accept defeat, and we’re not just going to allow this to happen again in our state. So I’m cautiously optimistic,” Groh-Wargo said. “But we need folks to take action. We need all manner of county officials from Chatham to Whitfield to engage on this, because the right to vote is the most sacred right we have.”
Mahoney said right now, the BOE’s focus is making sure every ballot and every vote received is counted.
“We’re going to be going through after this election is put to bed, and we’re going to go through and find those problems. And then, obviously, start implementing improvements in the training materials. I’m sure there’ll be new directives from the state on the system, and we’ll all be working together on that. Certainly before August, and certainly before November.”
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