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Atlanta Civic Circle Columns Democracy Tom Baxter

Georgia’s new voting machines, ‘fragile and error prone,’ get their first test

By Tom Baxter

The good news last week was that in spite of an election system that failed them miserably, with a pandemic lurking and unrest in the streets, large numbers of Georgians came out to vote. Equipped sometimes with lawn chairs and umbrellas, they were determined, no matter the inconvenience, to make their voices heard. The bad news is they may have to make the same effort and more this fall.

Last week’s Election Day problems are especially troubling because a record 1.2 million Georgians had already voted in the early voting period or by mail before the polls opened. That was far beyond any previous early vote total, and a testament to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s decision to mail ballot applications to every active voter in the state. Without that, last week’s meltdown would have been even worse.

There’s been a lot of fingerpointing about who bears responsibility for the confusion and delays which caused voters to stand in line for hours, but Raffensperger’s assertion that the problems in Fulton and DeKalb counties had “nothing to do with the rest of the state” just hasn’t held up. There were problems in a lot of counties around the state, as well as problems with the mail-in ballots. Fulton and DeKalb may have been the system’s weakest links, but it was the system itself that failed.

When Raffensperger announced his first postponement, only 10 days before the scheduled March 24 presidential primary, the coronavirus was still new enough and scary enough to seem a justification for anything. In retrospect, a presidential primary would have been smaller and more manageable than the combined primaries that were finally held last week, and might have served as an early warning (though there had already been one the previous November) that implementing the state’s more complicated new voting machine system would be as hard to pull off in the middle of a pandemic as critics warned.

No one can fault Raffensperger for making that call — the April 7 Wisconsin primary a couple of weeks later was treated like a national scandal. But you have to wonder if the machines as well as the disease might have on his mind when he made the decision. In its initial bid statement, Dominion Voting Systems told the state it couldn’t deliver its machines by the end of March. Maybe the pandemic delay looked like a way to give Dominion more time.

One of the examiners for the state of Texas, which rejected the same Dominion system, referred to it as “fragile and error prone.” It’s first major test of that claim was moved back to May 19, coinciding with the primaries for state offices, and then to June 9. But at last the examiner’s description was born out.

So much attention has been focused on the various problems in the voting process that the actual vote itself has received somewhat less notice than it might have. But there were some significant and surprising results.

It was a surprise — to me anyway — that Jon Ossoff was able to win the Democratic U.S. Senate race without a runoff. Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson had some big-time endorsements, and looked like an effective contrast with Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue. But Ossoff pulled off a majority over her and five other candidates.

Ossoff carried most of the state, except for a few counties along the Florida line and some around Columbus, but you can really see his winning percentage rise as you move into the reach of the Atlanta media market. U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ ad endorsing Ossoff, his former intern, was, hands down, the most effective of this campaign season.

Late campaign television ads also appear to have given both winners in the 7th Congressional District, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux and Republican Rich McCormick, the boost they needed escape runoffs. Bourdeaux fell just a little more than 400 votes shy of beating Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall in 2018. In this year’s primary, Democrats got a total of 80,000 votes in the district, while Republicans got a total of 61,000.

The tide looks to be running in the same direction in the neighboring 6th District. Karen Handel has waged two tough campaigns there, edging out Ossoff in a highly charged special election in 2017, and losing a close race to Democrat Lucy McBath in 2018. Last week Handel easily defeated four other Republicans to win her primary without a runoff. But all the Republicans combined got less than 59,000 votes, which McBath, running unopposed in the Democratic primary, got more than 80,000.

The two open-seat congressional districts in north Georgia don’t look likely to fall into Democratic hands anytime soon. No matter who wins the runoffs in the 14th District Republican race between Marjorie Taylor Greene and John Cowan, and in the 9th District between Matt Gurtler and Andrew Clyde, they’ll be to the right of Tom Graves and Doug Collins, the current Republicans representing those districts, at least in their rhetoric. That’s saying something.

Featured Image by Kelly Jordan, Candler Park, Atlanta, GA.
Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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