On June 6, Georgians braved long lines, broken or missing voting machines and a lack of available ballots to vote in a primary election that had already been delayed twice due to COVID-19. Precincts in Gwinnett, DeKalb, Fulton, Cobb and Henry Counties opted to stay open past 7 p.m. after failing to open on time. The problems weren’t confined to metro Atlanta, either: voters in Bibb, Chatham and Muscogee Counties also struggled to cast their ballots.
While these difficulties occurred during a primary election, the stakes will be much higher in November. The failure of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and other Georgia election officials to properly run an election are reminiscent of similar failures two years ago during the 2018 midterm elections. And similar to 2018, the difficulties are disproportionately concentrated in black communities.
While the coronavirus and new election machines have undoubtedly added stresses to the state’s election infrastructure, these irregularities once again demonstrate that not all Georgians have equal access to the ballot, regardless of what the law officially says.
In 2018, the AJC found that 214 polling precincts in Georgia have been closed since the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision in 2013, which struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Many of these closures have taken place in largely rural and predominantly black counties.
And when voters do show up to their polling precincts, they do not have equally positive experiences. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that black and Hispanic voters face longer wait times to vote, and that longer wait times discourage eligible adults from voting.
A nationwide study of the 2018 midterm elections by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that in precincts with 10% or fewer nonwhite voters, the average wait time was 5.1 minutes. In precincts with at least 90% voters of color, that number climbed to 32.4 minutes. The Voting and Registration Supplement of the Current Population Survey estimated that in 2016, 2.1% of eligible voters who did not cast a ballot did not do so because of an “inconvenient polling place.”
Georgia’s new voting machines have been an improvement over the aging machines they replaced, but their flaws are still unacceptable. These problems were apparent after six counties tested the new machines in the 2019 elections. The machines malfunctioned, forcing some precincts to remain open late to accommodate voters. Paper ballots are not a perfect solution, but they are a vast improvement over the new yet still unreliable voting machines.
The General Assembly should have invested in paper balloting instead of digital when it contemplated changes to the state’s voting system after 2018. It can still make needed changes for future elections.
While county officials take much of the responsibility for managing elections in Georgia, the state government should take a much more proactive role in guaranteeing equal access to the vote. The secretary of state could have pressured local administrators into keeping polling places open. They can still act to reopen closed precincts and open new ones before the general election in November.
The secretary of state should also work with the governor and the General Assembly to finally switch to a paper balloting system for Georgia’s elections, see that there are enough ballots and poll workers for each precinct, and ensure that every person who requests an absentee ballot will receive one.
The right to vote must be treated as sacred for all Georgians, no matter their race, political affiliation or ZIP code. Georgia’s election officials, including Raffensperger, must take that right more seriously than they currently do.