Long lines blamed on technical problems, poor poll worker training

Monday, the State Election Board approved an online portal for voters to request absentee ballots for November’s general election. A record 1 million Georgians voted by mail for the June 9 primary to avoid precincts and interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic Voters at Park Tavern in Midtown Atlanta endured four-hour waits. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Updated at 7:20 p.m.

At the Fulton County precinct in the former Fanplex complex on Hank Aaron Drive downtown, perspiration beaded on Carlen Funk’s face around her mask as she handed out water and snacks to the hundreds of people lined up to vote inside the long-shuttered arcade. It was 4:15 p.m. and she’d already been to two other precincts. The food options offered to voters expanded throughout the day.

“We started with donuts in the morning and then we kind of have evolved into pizza and other snacks and bottled water and everything,” Funk said. “The pizzas were donated at cost by Junior’s pizza in Summerhill just right off of Georgia Avenue.”

About 70 volunteers who connected online fanned out across metro Atlanta Tuesday to give voters in long lines a reason to stick around, Funk said. She said the informal team of volunteers recently raised about $8,000 through crowdfunding and plans to donate anything leftover to Fair Fight, an organization created by Stacey Abrams to fight voter suppression.

At her earlier stops, the lines to vote were not necessarily long, although the setups still took voters hours to reach the touch screens to cast ballots.

At Lindsay Street Baptist Church, only 33 people stood in line at about 1:30 when she arrived, Funk said. But the people at the front stood in line since 9:30 a.m. because the precinct only had one machine and only two voters were allowed inside at a time.

Funk started her day at the pop-up precinct Park Tavern soon after polls opened where the lines started long and stayed that way through late in the day.

“When I first got there at about 7:45, the line wrapped all the way from the end of their gravel parking lot and back up across Monroe. By the time I left, it was just to the end of the parking lot. So, it had gotten better. But then it got worse apparently.”

As she watched people continue to walk across Hank Aaron Drive to join the line leading up to the old Fanplex entrance, she said she was about ready for the second shift of volunteers to arrive.

“I am not sure how much more I’ve got in me honestly, since I’ve been going at it all day.”

— John McCosh

Updated at 7 p.m. 

The first Georgia voting experience for east Atlanta’s Phil Brown took longer than expected, with the Maryland transplant waiting well over an hour and a half outside the Beulah Missionary Baptist Church late Tuesday afternoon.

A line of more than 70 people snaked around the church as poll workers offered bottled water. Umbrellas blocked the sun for some voters while others took respite in some chairs.
For the 52-year-old Brown, this was by far the longest he has waited to vote, but that didn’t deter him.

“I don’t like waiting, but I think it’s really important to me to vote,” he said.

Polling manager Latiqua Farley blamed the line on social distancing guidelines and other safety precautions.

By about 4 p.m. Tuesday, the waiting times widely varied at south DeKalb County’s Barack H. Obama Elementary School, which served as the temporary home for two precincts.

Several people said it took them about 10 minutes at the Bouldercrest precinct. However, a Wi-Fi issue in the morning forced some voters to wait about an hour to cast their ballot, poll manager Oliver Gill said.

“We had to cut our numbers (of voting machines) down,” he said. “We’ve been pretty busy today, but this is just our downtime right now.”

Over in the school’s gymnasium, Gresham Road precinct voters also dealt with the same internet connection issues, causing wait times to top an hour. By the afternoon, people stood in line for 30 minutes.

The pandemic forced the poll to relocate from a church and meant setting up four voting machines, about half the machines that would usually be on hand for an election, polling manager Anthony Starks said.

— Stan Dunlap

Update from 1:50 p.m.:

Slow-moving lines of voters sweated for hours into polling places too small for Georgia’s new voting machine setup as some technical issues that caused delays early in the day seemed to get fixed as the day wore on.

While Fulton County workers at some precincts seemed to struggle the most with getting the long lines of voters in front of the state’s new touch screen ballot machines, similar reports from parts of Cobb, DeKalb and beyond indicated the problems were more widespread and systemic.

In many cases, concessions to the COVID-19 pandemic meant consolidating polls in places retrofitted to accommodate election equipment. Such was the case at Park Tavern in Midtown Atlanta, where David Hope waited four hours before exiting the beer hall to head off into a steamy afternoon.

He’d hoped to avoid the predictable ordeal by requesting an absentee ballot.

“We sent them the request about a week ago, just to try and get them at last minute but they never made it,” Hope said. “It’s clearly not an ideal situation. The six-foot social distancing becomes about two feet once you’re inside.”

Shortly before noon, Democratic Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts and Republican Commissioner Liz Hausmann showed up at Park Tavern for dueling press conferences. As Fulton County elections officials bore the brunt of second-guessing for voting equipment problems and insufficient training of poll workers, the two did agree on some reasons for problems at county precincts without injecting partisanship.

“We’ve got new equipment, of course, that’s going to be a struggle. We’ve got a pandemic, of course, that’s a struggle,” said Hausmann, a former county elections official. “We’ve had civil unrest, which adds to the tension in our community.”

She also blamed a lack of training of poll workers for what some called technical shortcomings, including a failure to charge the new voting machines ahead of polls opening at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Pitts agreed that some of the problems attributed to technology might also be due to users unfamiliar with the new ballot marking devices.

“When we see you know, people say like machines are down, there wasn’t a widespread issue,” he said. “There was just some issues with folks like putting in cards incorrectly.”

In any event, Pitts said, it is important for elections officials to review what went wrong to prepare for potential runoffs in August and what figures to be a much bigger turnout of voters in November’s general election.

One of the more common refrains at the Fulton County polls is that voters like Hope did not get a response when they sent in their absentee ballots, with some reporting sending in a request weeks ago.

“The majority of folks I’ve heard had applied for an absentee ballot, and it was never processed, and I don’t really have an answer for why that happened,” Hausmann said.

And the absentee ballot processing is likely to cause delays on the other end, as the county could struggle to tally the ones that were successfully returned.

“Well, obviously, I doubt we’re going to get any results,” by Wednesday morning, Hausmann said. “I’m concerned about counting all the absentee ballots. I know that that’s going to be a very involved process. I know that we’ve geared up for that. We’ve got a special place for them at the Georgia World Congress Center.”

About noon Tuesday House Speaker David Ralston called for his Governmental Affairs Committee to investigate irregularities in today’s primary election across Georgia, particularly in Fulton County.

— John McCosh

Update from 12:50 p.m.: 

DeKalb County election staff at Cross Keys High School resorted to passing out provisional paper ballots as they worked to get the voting machines operating, just in time for Brookhaven couple Jason Egli and Gabby Guevara to vote.

Still, the pair ended up waiting two hours to vote Tuesday morning.

“They’ve been communicating pretty well,” Egli said. “They said that the machines were down and sent somebody to get provisional paper ballots, which took a little while, but apparently machines are just back up.”

Guevara, who wore a face mask to the polls, said the precautions being taken to protect voters were enough to alleviate any potential safety concerns. But she said she worries that the technical equipment problems that led to long lines may discourage some people from voting in future elections.

“I think the concern now is how they’re going to push forward through the election year,” the 30-year-old said. “We have several elections coming up so I think the question now is how are they going to organize because this is kind of the precedent.

“I think it could cause some damage and people wanting to vote” Guevara added.

— Stan Dunlap

Update from noon, Tuesday: 

Long lines and voting machine snafus have been reported across metro Atlanta and in pockets of the state as Georgians cast their ballots on the last day of voting in the 2020 primary election.

The Georgia Republican Party quickly seized on the early morning problems reported in Fulton County.

“Just hours into Election Day, it has already become painfully apparent that Fulton County’s Democrat leadership is woefully unprepared to conduct today’s primary vote,” Georgia GOP Executive Director Stewart Bragg said in a statement. “This unacceptable incompetence will effectively disenfranchise countless eligible voters across Georgia’s largest county.”

But Maggie Chambers, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said the problems reported to the organization are more widespread than one county.

“So far this Election Day we have received countless reports of widespread voting issues in every corner of the state, and this is not limited to Fulton County or the metro area alone,” Chambers said. “The Secretary of State’s job is to provide adequate support and training for counties as he implemented Georgia’s new voting system, and he has failed.”

Gabriel Sterling, statewide voting implementation manager with the Secretary of State’s Office, said in a statement that acknowledged problems but said the primary election is unfolding smoothly in much of the state.

“So far we have no reports of any actual equipment issues,” Sterling said. “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 (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.”

That failure of leadership, he said later on Twitter, is “directed squarely at Fulton.”

— Jill Nolin

Update from 11:30 a.m.:

In Cobb County, voters at an East Cobb voting precinct were reporting about an hour wait. Some voters breezed through in just 15 minutes.

East Cobb stock trader Pam Barton got in line outside Sope Creek Elementary School at around 9 a.m., just in time for the morning rush. She ended up waiting a little over an hour to vote, listening to financial news to pass the time.

Barton said she didn’t mind the wait.

“I was hopeful to see the line,” she said. “If you’re committed to see the change, you make the sacrifice. For me, I didn’t want to not do it, so I just chose to come, what I thought was early. But now I’m done, I’ve got the sticker, and I’m good.”

Engineer Andrew Bryant arrived at the same polling place expecting a long wait after standing in line for over an hour back in 2018. He planned to listen to music to make a long wait more bearable, but his headphones did not get much use Tuesday. He was in and out in 15 minutes.

“I felt it went a lot better than my last election,” Bryant said. “I went to the same spot, and I felt like this went a lot faster.”

Barton said she was surprised to see just a handful of machines inside.

“Once you get inside, it does take you a little bit longer, so it’s a little deceiving once you get in the door because there’s only five machines, and it’s a long ballot, so that added to the wait,” she said.

— Ross Williams

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.

John McCosh
John McCosh

John McCosh, Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned writer and editor with decades of experience in journalism and government public affairs. His skills were forged in Georgia newsrooms, where he was a business and investigative reporter, editor and bureau chief, and expanded his experience during years in nonprofit and corporate communications roles. McCosh is a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and active in the Georgia State Signal Alumni Group, which advises student journalists.