New voting machines, rain, long lines: Georgia election plagued by problems

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / People socially distance while waiting in line to vote at Chattanooga Valley Nazarene Church on Tuesday, June 9, 2020 in Flintstone, Ga.

ATLANTA - Voters endured heat, pouring rain and waits as long as five hours on Tuesday to cast ballots across 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 African American, 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 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.

Some voters said they requested mail-in ballots that never arrived, forcing them to go to polling places and adding to the lines. Polling places in at least nine counties remained open later than expected because of voting problems.

Turnout, meanwhile, may be higher than expected as voters said they were determined to exercise their constitutional right after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing demonstrations that swept cities including Atlanta.

"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."

Most of Northwest Georgia apparently avoided most of the problems Tuesday that Fulton, DeKalb and other counties in the Atlanta area suffered.

Larry Sampson, the elections officer in Murray County, said his office had a slight issue with the way the new voting machines were powering on. Sampson said it had something to do with the way they plugged into the wall. A simple unplug and reboot fixed the problem, he said.

Tonya Moore with the Catoosa County elections office said they had no issues at all with the voting machines and lines had been steady all day.

photo Steven Posey checks his phone as he waits in line to vote, Tuesday, June 9, 2020, at Central Park in Atlanta. Voters reported wait times of three hours. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Catoosa County Elections Board Chairman Rickey Kittle said their precincts also had electrical issues. The Catoosa County office had to cancel "hundreds" of mail-in ballots because people who had requested them decided to vote in person instead, Kittle said.

Tammie Vaughan with the elections office in Dade County said it was all smooth sailing Tuesday, and Whitfield County election officials were counting absentee ballots at 10 p.m.

Results were trickling in late from Walker County.

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.

But the developments were troubling heading into the fall presidential campaign, which will attract even more voters. Biden and President Donald Trump are expected to fiercely compete in the 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 the meltdowns on officials in Fulton and DeKalb counties, which are Democratic strongholds with significant black populations.

"When these things arise, and it's really specifically in one or two counties ... it leads us back to the failure of the management of the county election directors in those counties," Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told The Associated Press. "It has nothing to do with what we're doing in the rest of Georgia."

Raffensperger said earlier in the day that it might be at least Wednesday morning before results were known in competitive races.

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

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Catoosa County District 1 Commissioner Jeff Long, left, holds his wife Sue's hand, as they look at election results with Georgia State District 3 incumbent Dewayne Hill, right, at the Colonnade in Ringold on June 9, 2020.

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

More than 1 million Georgians voted by absentee ballot before election day, and the Trump campaign seized on the voting-day problems to amplify the president's broader opposition to expanded mail voting this fall.

"The chaos in Georgia is a direct result of the reduction in the number of in-person polling places and overreliance on mail-in voting," said Trump campaign senior counsel Justin Clark. "We have a duty to protect the constitutional rights of all of our citizens to vote in person and to have their votes counted."

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.

Americans also voted in primaries in West Virginia, South Carolina and Nevada, where hourslong lines were reported as well. But the tumult in Georgia garnered much of the attention, reinforcing concerns about managing elections amid the coronavirus.

Outside a recreation center being used as a polling site in Atlanta, some voters said they had been waiting for nearly four hours. At another site off Atlanta's Piedmont Park, several people walked up, looked at the line wrapped around the parking lot and then left, shaking their heads in frustration.

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.

"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 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.

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

Georgia hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992, but the state is being closely watched by Trump and Biden. The former vice president, in particular, hopes to emerge as the prime beneficiary of energy from the African American community and its white allies, who have held massive protests for more than a week.

His path to the presidency was already focused on maximizing black turnout and expanding his alliance with white suburbanites and city dwellers, young voters, Asian Americans and Latinos. Trump, meanwhile, hoped to demonstrate strength among his base of white voters in small towns while holding his own in metro areas.

Trump, meanwhile, has virtually no path to reelection without victory in Georgia.

A nearly four-hour wait outside an Atlanta polling site shook Ross Wakefield's faith in the upcoming elections and people's 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."

Staff writer Patrick Filbin contributed to this story.

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Campaigners hold up signs towards the camera across the street from the Rossville Municipal Civic Center on Tuesday, June 9, 2020 in Rossville, Ga.