“I’m not leaving until I cast a ballot,” one resident said. “This is voter suppression — I’m shaking just talking about this”

By Sean Neumann and Adam Carlson
June 11, 2020 12:10 PM
Voters wait in an hours-long line at Park Tavern in Atlanta to vote in the coronavirus-delayed Georgia presidential primary and other races on Tuesday.

Shortly before noon on Tuesday, 80-year-old Anita Heard had — finally — made it close to the front of the line at her polling place to cast a ballot in Georgia’s presidential primary and various local races. She’d already been waiting at an Atlanta-area high school since about 6 a.m. Dozens of other people waited behind her.

“What is going on in Georgia? We have been waiting for hours,” Heard told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This is ridiculous. This is unfair.”

Inside, according to the paper, polling officials struggled to work the newly implemented voting machines, without enough backup provisional ballots for everyone waiting to cast their votes.

One man at the school complained aloud about the wait before leaving entirely, according to the AJC. Aerialle Klein, though, stayed put.

“I’m not leaving until I cast a ballot,” she told the paper. “This is voter suppression — I’m shaking just talking about this. But I’m staying. This is my civic duty. Something has to change.”

Similar scenes played out across Atlanta on Tuesday and other parts of the state, with various polling places staying open well past sundown. According to the AJC, the final Atlanta-area poll closed shortly after 10 p.m.

Voters reported waiting 90 minutes, two hours, two and a half hours, three hours and longer to cast their ballots in person.

The next morning, the AJC’s front page declared it a “COMPLETE MELTDOWN.”

The disarray played out in real-time on Tuesday, with the accounts of frustrated voters and the photos of long lines and hours of waiting drawing a national spotlight to the election troubles.

Before the day was over, blame was traded between state and county officials, Republicans and Democrats.

Voters wait in an hours-long line at Park Tavern in Atlanta to vote in the coronavirus-delayed Georgia presidential primary and other races on Tuesday.
Voters cast their ballot at the Decatur Recreation Department in Georgia on Tuesday.

Georgia’s already complicated voting history grew more complicated this year: Against the backdrop of a changing electorate that has become more liberal, voting-rights groups in the Deep South state have argued conservatives there engage in systematic suppression efforts to maintain their control.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp narrowly defeated Stacey Abrams in 2018, the closest result for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 20 years. Abrams lost by 1.4 points in a result she disputed — pointing to Kemp’s then-role as secretary of state, overseeing the very election he was in.

Kemp, in turn, suggested without evidence it was state Democrats who wanted improper voting.

Election day dawned this week in Georgia with other issues: Last year the state embarked on a dramatic overhaul of all of its voting machines — replacing them with an elaborate system of touchscreen computers, printers and scanners to ensure people were submitting paper ballots less vulnerable to outside interference — and the novel coronavirus pandemic was yet one more obstacle still.

The primary election had already been delayed from March, when widespread social distancing measures began three months ago.

Health concerns related to the virus meant fewer polling locations and fewer poll workers (many of whom are older) at the same time that workers had to be trained, remotely, on a new technological system.

Meanwhile more than a million voters opted to send in absentee ballots, presenting its own logistical challenges in a state where that is not the norm. For example, the Georgia secretary of state tells PEOPLE more than 1,800,000 mail-in votes were collected as of Monday night. In 2016, the office said it received just 37,000 mail-in votes ahead of that year’s primary election.

Larger forces shaped Tuesday as well: According to Georgia Public Broadcasting, in recent years some of the state’s largest counties have reduced their number of polling locations despite increasing registration — a trend voting-rights advocates have long said reflects efforts to reduce turnout. (A controversial 2013 Supreme Court decision removed federal oversight from this issue.)

The pandemic forced further polling place closures. One of the most crowded locations in Atlanta on Tuesday, a restaurant and events space, was reportedly only chosen after a large high school nearby was unavailable.

According to GPB, the average precinct is about 2,600 people. But some 16,000 voters were assigned to Park Tavern, the Atlanta restaurant, because of relocation amid the pandemic.

Despite all of this, total turnout remained very strong via mail-in, early voting and on election day.

“There are a number of things that have happened,” Fulton County Board of Commissioner Chairman Robb Pitts told reporters Tuesday outside Park Tavern, the site of some of the longest waits. “Everything that could happen or go wrong has gone wrong so far.”

People wait in line to vote in Georgia on Tuesday.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty
Voters wait in a line at Central Park Recreation Center in Fulton County to vote in the coronavirus-delayed Georgia presidential primary and other races on Tuesday.

Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's secretary of state, announced his office would be launching an investigation into what happened Tuesday. The state’s House speaker, David Ralston, has also said he will investigate.

“We were getting reports from northeast Georgia, from southeast Georgia, from all regions of the state about these kinds of problems, and so it was not limited just to the metro area,” Ralston told local radio station WABE this week.

“We have to do a better job of training both the workers as well as those who train the workers at the local level,” Ralston said. “I think there’s a role — a large role — there for the state and one that I want to find out how well we discharged that yesterday.”

The secretary of state’s office was quick to lay blame with individual counties, particularly DeKalb and Fulton, which include Atlanta.

“It's astounding to me what an abdication of leadership that is, to push the ownership down to the counties. I was raised that if you mess up, fess up,” DeKalb Commissioner Steve Bradhsaw said, according to the AJC.

“So far we have no reports of any actual equipment issues,” Gabriel Sterling, who led implementation of the new voting machines, said Tuesday, according to the Atlanta paper. “We have reports of poll workers not understanding setup or how to operate voting equipment. 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.”

Raffensperger, the secretary of state, said in a statement Tuesday night that the situations in DeKalb and Fulton was “unacceptable.”

His office did not respond to questions about voter suppression.

“We just want to figure out what happened in these two counties,” Ari Schaffer, a Raffensperger spokesman, tells PEOPLE. “One hundred-fifty of 159 counties figured out how to, you know, plug the right things in to the right places and got elections going and in these two counties — in particularly Fulton, one of the two — has a history of electoral issues.”

Schaffer says the coronavirus was challenging as well.

“When COVID-19 [the coronavirus disease] came into effect and started affecting elections, a lot of our poll workers dropped out,” he says. “We had a lot of new people who were coming in to manage on election day. They didn’t have the experience, they didn’t know what election day was like, so we had to kind of rely on them to run the polling locations day-of.”

He says new workers went through virtual training but the state had hiccups with in-person training, which Schaffer blames on not being able to train more than 10 people in a room at a given time because of social distancing orders.

“It’s hard to train people,” Schaffer says. “I’m sure you’ve had to build something in your life. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do it after watching a YouTube video, but oftentimes watching a YouTube video or a How-To video doesn’t really help you.”

People vote in Atlanta on Tuesday.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty

Schaffer likens Tuesday's debacle to a situation where “it turns out the YouTube video is sort of helpful but it’s only a fraction of what you need to know for doing it.”

He says a large number of poll workers arrived Tuesday having been virtually trained, but they didn’t have "a lot of hands on experience with the machines” because of pandemic restrictions, in addition to never having worked an election day in the past.

“That’s kind of what we were working with when we got in there,” Schaffer says.

On the ground, various voters reported problems echoing Schaffer: a lack of expertise and a lack of trained workers to smoothly handle a more complicated system.

A Fulton County commissioner told the AJC that some of the voting technology didn’t arrive on time or wasn’t properly charged, with workers unclear how to use it.

In Gwinnett County, north of Atlanta, some precincts did not initially have all of their equipment, the paper reported.

“That’s not an equipment issue,” Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann told the paper. “That’s a training issue,”

“Polling managers were doing their best,” voter Dana Johnson told the AJC. “It seems like they weren’t provided what they needed.”

Another voter, Daniel Aarons, told the paper a poll worker inside was being trained “on the job.”

“She had to keep asking the procedures and steps,” he said. “They only have seven or eight machines. It’s going to be a long, long day.”

Appearing on CBS This Morning on Wednesday, Stacey Abrams, who lost the 2018 gubernatorial election, said Tuesday was “one of the most egregious examples” of voter suppression she’s ever seen.

“The long lines happened mostly in the urban areas, but we had to see extensions in Democratic and Republican areas, including the Republican area represented by the Republican speaker of the House,” said Abrams, who since 2018 has become a major voting-rights advocate. “This is a complete meltdown and failure of the secretary of state’s office.”

State Sen. Nikema Williams, who is the chair of Georgia's Democratic Party, also took issue with Raffensperger. She said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that she’d heard reported problems taking place across Georgia — not just in Atlanta.

“We are calling on the secretary of state when he’s doing his investigation to make sure it’s comprehensive and it’s statewide, because this problem rests with him as the chief elections supervisor in the state of Georgia,” she said. “We’ve got to get this right.”

People wait in line to vote in Atlanta on Tuesday.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty

Responding to some county criticism of the secretary of state, Sterling, one of the office’s top officials, said the law was clear on the county’s role.

“That the DeKalb County CEO doesn’t seem to know that training poll workers and equipping polling places is a responsibility that Georgia law places squarely on the county goes a long way to explain the issues that we saw today in DeKalb,” Sterling said, according to the AJC.

The example of Georgia has raised questions about what other states can do — and not do — in November’s general election, with the virus still spreading.

“What we saw yesterday play out in different states really highlights what we’ve seen throughout the primary season and that is sort of the 'canary in the coal mine' of what we’re going to anticipate for November,” says Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser with the Democracy Fund, tells PEOPLE “We know the main problems that we’re going to encounter in this moment with the impact of COVID and that has to do with lack of people. Whether it’s poll workers, or election officials, or postal carriers — everyone can get sick in this moment and that can have an impact.”

Patrick, who was in a meeting Wednesday with the National Task Force on Election Crises, called Georgia’s election the “worst possible storm,” while noting the state has a layered history and an ongoing debate about voter suppression — all of which was compounded on Tuesday.

“It matters in Georgia because we know the contentious conversations around their equipment choices,” Patrick says. “It really does make a big difference to know, was it actually widespread equipment failure or was it a systematic failure of the training to be able to run the equipment effectively and efficiently?”