As Georgia voters headed to the polls on Tuesday morning, expectations of high voter turnout collided with delays, technical issues, and a limited number of voting machines in some parts of the state with high minority populations. Late on Tuesday, local elections officials announced that voting hours would be extended past 7 pm in some locations to compensate for the problems.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, machines in at least four voting locations in Gwinnett County temporarily went down, causing voters to resort to paper ballots. The issues further extended long lines at polling locations, with some voters waiting more than four hours to vote. Three Gwinnett precincts will stay open later to make up for the delays.
“The electronic Express Polls — which are used to check voters in to their precincts — were temporarily down,” the Journal-Constitution reported early on Tuesday. The affected locations included Annistown Elementary School, “the Gwinnett Public Library Branch in Suwanee, Mt. Vernon Baptist Church near Lawrenceville and at Harbins Elementary near Dacula.”
Voting at the Annistown Elementary precinct will continue until 9:25 pm, while the Harbins Elementary precinct will be open until 7:14 pm.
A voter sent me this video from inside the Annistown Elementary polling location in Gwinnett County. Poll workers are telling voters that the voting machines are NOT WORKING. County officials tell me, they're trying to fix the problem.@wsbtv #Election2018 #ElectionOn2 pic.twitter.com/vwtqlqDJ9y— Audrey Washington (@AudreyWSBTV) November 6, 2018
In Georgia, before a voter uses a voting machine, a poll worker first creates an access card that contains an electronic copy of a ballot. The voter then takes this card, places it into the voting machine, and casts their votes.
Gwinnett County spokesperson Joe Sorenson told the Journal-Constitution that the issue is related to the machine that creates the access cards but did not offer further details, adding that new machines will be brought in.
NBC News reported that at a fifth location in the county, the machines were not connected to power cords and ran out of battery power. That location will now remain open until 7:30 pm.
NBC News has confirmed that the issue at Anderson Livsey Elementary in Snellville, GA was indeed a lack of power cords. Gwinnett County Director of Communications Joe Sorenson tells @NBCNews “the machine was not supplied power and was running on battery & the battery ran out” https://t.co/YFa45nihXs— Ayman Mohyeldin (@AymanM) November 6, 2018
The line to vote at Anderson-Livesy Middle School in Snellvillle off Centerville Highway stretches the length of the school.— Amanda Coyne (@AmandaCCoyne) November 6, 2018
“It’s like waiting on line at Six Flags,” one voter said pic.twitter.com/dPivZjYq66
The issues have created some confusion and led to increasingly long lines at the affected locations. “We’ve got people who are voting with the paper ballots, and we’ve got people who are standing to wait for the machines to be fixed, and we’ve got people who said they are planning to come back,” Sorenson told the New York Times.
Gwinnett County is the second-largest county in the state and has seen rapidly shifting demographics over the years, particularly when it comes to increases in the county’s nonwhite population. The Washington Post notes that the county has gone from “67 percent white in 2000 to 62 percent nonwhite” in 2017, and that Democrats in the state have worked to mobilize voters of color in the county in an effort to turn Georgia blue.
The technical problems have since been resolved, but the polling manager in charge of one of the affected precincts did not offer voter paper ballots when the issue was first discovered. The state Democratic Party held a Tuesday afternoon press conference urging people to return to the polls if they left without casting a ballot.
Voting issues in Gwinnett County have been in the news before
In the weeks leading up to the election, voting issues in Gwinnett County largely revolved around absentee ballots. The county was the main catalyst for a lawsuit in October from the American Civil Liberties Union and local groups, which argued that a law requiring voters’ signatures to match state records was leading to the rejection of hundreds of absentee ballots, many of them from voters of color. Close to 600 ballots in Gwinnett County were initially rejected due to mismatched signatures.
However, US District Court Judge Leigh Martin May ruled on October 24 that the state could no longer automatically throw out absentee ballots because of these “signature mismatches.” That ruling was upheld on Friday when a federal appeals court ruled that Georgia must follow May’s order.
Gwinnett County is expected to be a key battleground in the contentious governor’s race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp. The county has long been a Republican stronghold, according to the Journal-Constitution, but has been shifting left in recent years.
Other Georgia counties also reported problems on Tuesday
Roughly 30 miles away in Fulton County, voters reported a different issue: a limited number of voting machines. One polling location at Atlanta’s Pittman Park Recreation Center had just three machines, sparking complaints about exceptionally long lines and hours-long waiting times in the predominantly black part of the county. The county announced Tuesday evening that voting hours at the precinct would be extended to 9 pm. Voting was also extended to 10 pm at Morehouse College’s Archer Hall and at Booker T. Washington High School.
As the wait continued earlier in the day, volunteers started handing out pizza in an effort to keep people in line. “We are bringing the party to the polls — water, snacks, pizza, and ponchos to voters,” Nikema Williams, the deputy political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said in a statement earlier on Tuesday.
Voting lines in Fulton County, Georgia have been 2-3 hours long!! @adaliusthomas volunteered with @CareInActionUSA to pass out food and water to voters and encourage them to stay in line. Every voice counts today! #VOTE pic.twitter.com/TCmtYjPtCB— PlayersCoalition (@playercoalition) November 6, 2018
Rev. Jessie Jackson (@RevJJackson) at Pittman Park recreation in GA. There were only 3 machines, but they just added 5 more. The average wait before was 4 hours, & many people left and are going to come back and try again. [via @wabenews reporter @QuillianK] #gapol #ElectionDay pic.twitter.com/QEK2f7pHHw— Sascha Cordner (@SaschaCordner) November 6, 2018
During a Tuesday morning press conference, Fulton County Election Director Rick Barron blamed the limited number of voting machines on a counting error. The precinct is supposed to have one machine for every 350 registered voters, but the number of voters entered into the system was incorrect, leading to far fewer machines actually being set up.
“I just want to tell the voters there that on behalf of me and my staff, we’re sorry for the mix-up,” Barron told reporters. He added that five more machines would be sent to the Pittman Park location.
According to the AP, Barron also said that the problems were partially the result of a federal judge’s prior ruling to sequester 700 of the county’s voting machines. The county only has 40 spare machines.
At another voting location in the county, voters waited in line for hours after four voting machines went down due to power cord issues. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes that the issue has since been resolved.
Georgia’s election system was already under scrutiny
The problems call renewed attention to election system issues in Georgia. It is one of just a handful of states that fully rely on electronic voting without any independent paper ballots, a system that election security experts say is more susceptible to electronic hacking.
In September, US District Judge Amy Totenberg ruled that Georgia could not be forced to adopt paper ballots before the election, but said there was “a mounting tide of evidence of the inadequacy and security risks” in the state’s system.
In October, the NAACP filed a complaint saying that voting machines were incorrectly registering votes for Abrams as votes for Kemp.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) argued that the issues being seen in the state today could be directly traced to Kemp, who currently serves as Georgia’s Secretary of State. “This was definitely foreseeable,” he said, noting that high turnout for the election was expected.
“He has had adequate time to address the archaic nature of this process,” Johnson added, “and he’s failed to do so.”