November 28, 2018
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Georgia Voters Face Hourslong Waits as State Scrambles to Accommodate Turnout

Voters across the state are facing waits of up to five hours as lines snake out the doors and administrators rush to get additional materials to the polls.

by Jessica Huseman, Isaac Arnsdorf, and Jeremy B. Merrill, Pro Publica

Poll workers in Georgia appear to have been unprepared for the waves of voters who turned out on Tuesday. Officials were scrambling to bring additional equipment to the polls and to field calls from frustrated voters forced to wait in line for hours across the state. Meanwhile, some who called county officials got busy signals or reached voicemail boxes for election offices that were full.

“We are very fortunate that Georgia has robust early voting, because without that we can only imagine how hard the problems would be today,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research.

Voter Linda Marshall said she spent two hours trying to vote at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. Marshall said she registered to vote after moving to Atlanta, but the manager at the polling place said she wasn’t in the system. He refused to give her a provisional ballot, and the phone numbers he told her to call were disconnected. Fulton County did not respond to a request for comment about Marshall’s experience.

After leaving, Marshall called a legal aid, and lawyers referred her to a Georgia law saying she’s entitled to a provisional ballot. She said she hasn’t decided if she’ll try going back. “What they’re doing at my polling station is outside of the statutes — it’s illegal,” said Marshall, 65. “I haven’t had to work so hard to vote ever. It was just a runaround, and I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Ten miles south, hundreds of voters at Pittman Park Recreation Center faced wait times nearly three hours long. At noon, the line snaked out of the multipurpose room and doubled back on itself in a narrow hallway. Despite the line, voters seemed determined to stay put and the atmosphere seemed jovial. Organizers with the National Domestic Workers Alliance handed out Cheez-its, fruit snacks and Little Caesars Pizza to waiting voters, and voters chatted with each other as they waited.

The center serves mostly black neighborhoods in Southwest Atlanta, and multiple people told ProPublica they felt a sense of obligation to stay in line — their parents and grandparents had been unable to vote, and they were excited to cast a ballot for the first black woman to be a major party nominee for governor in the United States.

“I wanted this experience.” said Tyrone Hodges, who said he’d been in line for more than two hours. He said the wait was inconvenient but gave him hope that the Democratic nominee, Stacey Abrams, could win. “When I see it packed like this, you know she’s got a shot.”

Sandra Thomas, 70, was similarly enthusiastic. “If I have to be here til tomorrow, I’m gonna vote,” she said.

The center generally serves fewer voters than were seen this morning, but the county merged a nearby polling location with Pittman and didn’t allocate any additional polling machines. Voters were casting ballots on only three machines until the county dispatched five more late in the morning, and those in line said it started to move more quickly after that.

Trey Greyson, the former Republican secretary of state for Kentucky, said that election administrators have to balance “spending extra money on equipment when experience tells they won’t be needed,” and that turnout across the country has taken administrators by surprise. Additionally, the use of electronic voting machines makes states less nimble, he said. “You can print more paper ballots, but you can’t produce more machines immediately,” he said, explaining the long delays voters are facing as the county works to produce more equipment.

Tim Harper is a policy analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project, who conducted research into lines using data from the 2016 elections. Harper said polling locations unable to clear long lines within two hours of the polls opening are likely to face long lines for the rest of the day unless the counties allocate additional resources.

“Without adding additional resources to the polls — like pollbooks, or check-in clerks, or voting stations — that line is not going to go anywhere,” he said.

Other counties are similarly having to scramble as high turnout and faulty equipment has forced voters to wait in line for hours.

Dekalb County had to replace a surge protector that was affecting the voting machines at Jolly Elementary in Clarkston, Georgia, a city northeast of Atlanta. County officials also sent two replacement machines to the site. Prior to the repairs, multiple voters reported wait times up to two hours.

In Gwinnett County, voters waited nearly five hours to vote after electronic poll books, which verify voter registration at the polls, were down at Annistown Elementary School. Voters cast provisional ballots, though the county eventually fixed the problem.

Kelvin Carroll arrived at 7 a.m., and the line didn’t move until after 11. “A lot of people left. I posted on Facebook almost every hour telling people not to give up,” he said. “We were going to vote regardless. A lot of people fought and died for your right to vote, so don’t give it up.”

The Abrams campaign held a news conference midday after the technical difficulties. Local candidates told voters that issues with voting machines had been solved, and they should stay in line. The secretary of state’s office told ProPublica the location would extend voting for 25 minutes at the location.

And in Henry County, the address of a polling place sent voters to a middle school. By the time Faith Foufa arrived at 6:20 a.m., she was the seventh person in line. After waiting for 40 minutes for the doors to open — with the line growing to around 50 people — nothing happened. Eventually, a woman came out of the school and told the line that their polling place was elsewhere, according to Foufa. “People stormed off,” she said. “It was absolutely ridiculous.”

The woman from the school gave imprecise directions to the polling location, so Foufa drove around for 20 minutes trying to find it. The voting was actually taking place at a gym behind the school, accessible from a different road. Tina Lunsford, the county election director, said there are now signs directing people to the right location and her office will try to amend the state’s website.

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