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Metro Atlanta voting complaints and blame turn up faster than results

Maggie Lee
Dozens and dozens of people in a line in a parking lot
The now-famous Park Tavern precinct in Midtown, where Fulton County assigned 16,000 active voters, after other nearby polling places dropped out. Credit: Maria Saporta

By Maggie Lee

Voting officials from DeKalb, Fulton and the state of Georgia have been quick to spread the blame for voting machine problems and long lines that plagued metro voters Tuesday.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is the state’s top voting official. And on Tuesday afternoon, he was unhappy with two big metro counties.

“The voting situation today in certain precincts in Fulton and DeKalb counties is unacceptable,” Raffensperger said in a press release announcing an investigation into those two counties.

Raffensperger acknowledged there would obviously be a “learning curve” with the new state-mandated machines that counties were required to put into use this year. And that COVID-19 hasn’t made things any easier. But he said other counties were “significantly better prepared” to respond to those challenges.

Tuesday night, Fulton’s own top election official, Rick Barron, acknowledged the hours-long waits to vote at some precincts. Fulton has spent the last six weeks or so watching 45 polling places decline to open their doors this year, about a quarter of the total planned precincts. Venues like senior housing, which usually serve as polling places, couldn’t take a COVID-19 breakout risk.

Some poll workers just didn’t show up for work Tuesday, Barron said; at least one called in with a COVID-19 diagnosis. Barron also said the county had hired 90 technicians for the election who were roving the county dealing with issues from voting machines that overloaded their power supplies to poorly trained poll workers.

Barron didn’t yet know any details of Raffensperger’s investigation.

“He’s the head election official in the state, and he can’t wash his hands of all the responsibility for this election,” Barron said of Raffensperger at a Tuesday night press conference.

DeKalb County’s leader said the state ought to be under investigation.

“Those Georgians who have been disenfranchised by the statewide chaos that has effected the voting system today in numerous DeKalb precincts and throughout the state of Georgia deserve answers,” said DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond in a Tuesday statement.

Thurmond said it’s the state’s job to “train, prepare and equip” election staff throughout the state.

And the state’s voting implementation manager, Gabriel Sterling, said it’s not.

“The Secretary of State’s office is tasked with providing training to the superintendents, who then train their poll workers and county election officials,” Sterling wrote in a press release.

Barron has long argued that urbanized places, like parts of Fulton, depend more on privately owned polling places than rural counties do.

That is, he has to find big venues, preferably with tons of parking that don’t want to charge much of anything for use. In Midtown, those are a bit hard to come by.

Earlier this year, Raffensperger decided to mail all active Georgia voters an absentee ballot application, to try and nudge people to vote by mail and avoid COVID-19 risk. At the time, leading Democrats said he should have skipped the application step and just sent everyone a ballot.  Some of the mailing is handled by a vendor that’s in Arizona.

Some social media and some chatter in voting lines indicate that at least some Fulton folks say they voted in person because a ballot they requested never arrived in the mail.

Barron said that after an election such as this, it’s up to the secretary of state’s office to do some sort of post-mortem and see what went right and what went wrong. Barron said he’ll do that himself with the metro counties if Raffensperger doesn’t.

Counties are the ones that have to do the frontline work to make sure elections work, Barron said.

“We need the secretary of state’s office to be involved in that process and show some leadership and not point the fingers at the counties and view us as partners in this process,” Barron said.

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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