There’s broad agreement that last week’s primary election in Georgia was a fiasco, with voters reportedly waiting as long as five hours to cast a ballot.
Democrats accused Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of bungling the statewide rollout of new election technology. Some went further, suggesting that the problems—which were most severe in Democratic areas—were a deliberate Republican strategy.
“What happened in Georgia yesterday was by design,” former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted last Wednesday. “Voter suppression is a threat to our democracy.”
Republicans have responded by blaming officials in Democratic-leaning urban counties where the problems were the worst. County officials in Georgia are responsible for many day-to-day details of an election, including selecting polling places and recruiting poll workers.
Raffensperger singled out officials in Fulton and DeKalb Counties—liberal jurisdictions in the heart of the Atlanta metro area. “Every other county faced these same issues and were significantly better prepared to respond so that voters had every opportunity to vote,” Raffensperger wrote in an election-day statement.
“Plenty of blame to go around”
Experts told Ars that the biggest factor wasn’t Republican or Democratic mismanagement—it was the coronavirus. The virus forced Georgia to delay its primary from March to June. Due to coronavirus fears, some counties had difficulty finding new locations for their election precincts, forcing them to combine multiple precincts in one location.
“Fulton County had a massive no-show rate on poll workers,” said Andy Green, a voting security expert at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “There was plenty of blame to go around to all parties.
“These are new systems, we had fewer poll workers, we had fewer precincts, and we had fewer voting systems within those precincts,” Green said. “I think that if you were to ask me which one was the No. 1 cause of problems, I wouldn’t be able to answer that.”
But one other factor that played a significant role was a new voting system that was used for the first time statewide last week. That system included a new electronic poll book system for checking voters in as well as new ballot-marking machines. Voters had problems with both systems last week—though it’s not clear if these were primarily problems with the systems themselves or that poll workers had inadequate training on how to use them.
A preview for November?
It’s worth paying attention to what happened in Georgia because almost every state could face similar challenges in November. If the coronavirus is still a significant problem on November 3—which it very well could be—states may struggle to find suitable polling places and recruit enough poll workers. Many more voters are likely to vote by mail, forcing states to rapidly expand their infrastructure for counting mail-in ballots. And there’s a risk foreign governments will be looking for ways to interfere.
“It’s probably going to be one of the most chaotic elections in our nation’s history,” said Matthew Bernhard, an election security researcher at the University of Michigan, in an interview last Friday.
Election officials have a ton of work to do in order to be prepared for this November’s election, experts told Ars. They need to make sure there are enough polling locations and poll workers despite concerns about the coronavirus. And most states need to build infrastructure to process an order of magnitude more mail-in ballots than they received in past elections.
Congress could help out here. Congress allocated $400 million to help states with coronavirus-related election challenges in March, but experts at the time said that a lot more was needed.
Technology played a big role in last week’s voting problems
In a bid to make voting more convenient, a number of states have expanded early voting centers. These locations are typically open for several weeks before the election. Voters can visit these centers at their convenience, and they don’t necessarily have to visit the one nearest their home.
Of course, this flexibility for voters creates logistical challenges for election officials. Officials need to make sure that each voter casts only one ballot and that the voter gets the right ballot based on his or her specific place of residence. Georgia, which is at the forefront of this trend, makes heavy use of technology to help manage this complexity. In last week’s election, the state used Internet-based poll-book software to verify voter identities and check them in electronically. Voters were then sent to a ballot-marking device with a smart card indicating which ballot the voter should receive.
David Becker, an election expert at the Center for Election Innovation & Research, argues that digital systems are key to enabling the use of early voting centers.
“Fulton County probably has hundreds of ballot styles, based on where you live and who you’re allowed to vote for,” Becker told Ars last week. Without ballot-marking devices, “they would have had hundreds of stacks at each one of these polling places.”
Previously, Georgia used touchscreen voting machines that counted votes electronically—without producing a paper ballot. These machines offered convenience and flexibility, but security experts warned that the lack of a paper trail made it impossible to verify results. Last year, after a lengthy legal battle, the state promised to abandon these purely electronic voting machines in favor of ballot-marking devices—new touchscreen machines that produced a voter-readable paper ballot.
Georgia piloted its new election technology—both new ballot-marking devices and new electronic poll books—in a few local elections last November. Four of the six participating counties reported problems with the state’s electronic poll-book software that tells election workers which ballot a voter should receive. The problems delayed voters by as much as 45 minutes.
The statewide rollout of the software was apparently even worse, with technology problems playing a major role.
There were problems with both voting machines and training
At one Southwest Atlanta precinct, voters faced multi-hour delays due to technology problems. According to one voter who talked to the Atlanta Journal-Courier, “in the morning a poll worker informed the crowd that all but one voting machine was down.” By lunch time, the line “stretched outside the door, down the sidewalk and nearly to the road.”
Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said she had to wait two and a half hours to vote, and she said several factors contributed to the delays. She told the AJC that “equipment came late, some wasn’t charged and workers checking voters in weren’t clear about their instructions.”
But Becker, an advocate for the use of technology in elections, argues that the problems with voting technology were overstated.
“Ten voting machines out of more than 30,000 had to be replaced statewide,” Becker told Ars. “That’s an incredibly low number.”
Becker argued that a lack of poll-worker training was a bigger issue.
“The problems with the technology were related to poll workers not having adequate training to set up and use the technology easily,” he said. Due to the coronavirus, the training was conducted virtually, so many poll workers were encountering the physical equipment for the first time on election day.
Voting security expert Harri Hursti visited Georgia last Tuesday. He agrees that a lack of training was a big issue. “They didn’t have training materials,” he told Ars. “Things that should have come from the state to the counties was missing.”