man holding I Voted sticker (Eileen Salazar/

Georgia primary a 'catastrophe,' voting rights advocates say

The primary election in Georgia did not go smoothly. Voters reported a litany of issues: Many polling locations did not open on time, some of the newly purchased equipment malfunctioned, many poll workers did not understand how to turn on or operate the machines, polling locations lacked backup paper ballots, and voters reported four-hour lines.

“The election has been a catastrophe,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Democratic Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at one point pleaded with voters to stay in line while officials attempted to fix malfunctioning machines. But many voters walked away from the polls, opting not to cast a ballot amid these barriers.

The problems weren’t just at the voting locations. While the state mailed absentee ballot applications to all 6.9 million voters, many never received ballots they requested, some received the wrong mail-in ballots and others failed to receive legally required secrecy inner envelopes for their mail-in ballots. A record 1.5 million people asked for absentee ballots to avoid voting in person in the midst of a pandemic.

Clarke, whose group helped run a hotline to report these issues, gave the state an F for its handling of the election. Three-quarters of the complaints came from black voters, she said.

“Georgia is a repeat offender to voter suppression efforts and actions that undermine voting rights,” she said. “With political will, they can get this right.

“We’ll keep pushing and fighting because voters in Georgia deserve better.”

Many of the problems occurred in four Atlanta-area counties: Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett, all of which have significant black populations.

The office of Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger shifted blame to the counties, asserting that election equipment worked fine but poll workers weren’t trained to use it. The state spent $104 million on the new voting system, which uses touchscreens that create paper ballots.

“While these are unfortunate, they are not issues of the equipment but a function of counties engaging in poor planning, limited training, and failures of leadership,” the office said in a statement. “Well over 2,000 precincts are functioning normally throughout the state of Georgia.”

But voting rights advocates, like Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, said the state could have provided greater financial, logistical and training support for counties. The state also contracted out the mail-in ballot application processing to an Arizona-based company, which she said added to delays.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a new voting law last year to address many of the concerns of voting rights advocates, who took the state to federal court alleging voter disenfranchisement. Now polling places cannot legally change locations within 60 days of an election, and voters have more time to avoid being purged from the rolls.

Voting rights advocates in other states that held primaries this week, including South Carolina and Nevada, also reported long lines that resulted from voters failing to receive their mail-in absentee ballots on time. This issue has plagued this primary season, as many election officials were unprepared to handle an election amid a global pandemic.

These failures make it clear that Congress must inject more funding into state and local election offices before November, Clarke said. Congress allocated $400 million in March. But the Brennan Center for Justice estimates these officials need $4 billion. It is unclear whether Congress will allocate more money.

This article was first posted to Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

About the Author

Matt Vasilogambros is a staff writer for Stateline.


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