The long lines. Poll locations not opening on time. Workers flummoxed by new voting machines.
For Bobby Fuse, a long-time Democratic activist from Americus, Georgia, the chaos that gripped Tuesday’s primary felt familiar – and intentional.
“It’s the same game that we were fighting 50 years ago,” said Fuse, a 68-year-old political strategist who attended his first civil rights march – a protest against the arrest of four black women for standing to vote in the line reserved for white women – as a 13-year-old in July 1965.
“There’s always some sneaky trick that’s played,” Fuse told CNN. “This time, they had a whole bunch of sneaky tricks.”
Tuesday’s meltdown of the voting system in Georgia – a potential presidential battleground in November – has sparked widespread concerns about voter disenfranchisement and charges by activists that Republican state officials engaged in efforts to suppress the vote in predominantly African American communities.
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Civil rights groups and African American leaders, who have spent years fighting Georgia’s restrictive voting laws, expressed concerns ahead of the primary over potential difficulties with new systems and equipment implemented by the state. By the time polls were scheduled to close and hours-long lines of voters continued their long wait to cast a ballot, those fears had been realized.
The troubles in Georgia were most harshly felt in heavily African American counties in and around Atlanta, where some defective machines set off scrambles for provisional ballots, which were in short supply. There were also widespread cases of voters across the state reporting that their absentee ballots showed up late – or not at all – for a primary election twice-delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
After weeks of protest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, and through a pandemic that has disproportionately claimed the lives of African Americans, the primary day meltdown registered as the latest in a series of indignities. It was another gut punch to a community, especially in Georgia, that has for generations contended with policies implemented by Republican officials, led most recently by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp during his time as secretary of state, they say are purpose-built to make voting more difficult.
The difficulties with absentee voting were felt across the state, snaring some of its highest profile public figures. Former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who founded a voting rights group after her failed 2018 bid against Kemp, told CBS News Wednesday morning that her ballot arrived with the return label sealed.
“I tried to steam it open because I watched a lot of ‘Perry Mason.’ It didn’t work,” Abrams said. “And so I had to go vote in person.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, in an interview with CNN on Wednesday, said she went to vote in person last week, because her absentee ballot never arrived.
Nsé Ufot, of the New Georgia Project, said she was “equal parts determined and pissed off” a day after the chaotic voting.
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, she called on Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign and Richard Barron, Fulton County’s director of elections, to be fired – as she and other activists described a litany of problems with voting, including polling places opening hours later than expected and closing while voters remained in line.
“Yesterday was completely avoidable,” Ufot said, “and I now have to wonder if we are all witnesses to a direct attack on our democracy and a trial run for what we expect to see headed into runoffs in August and possibly the general election in November.”
As the scope of the failure began to take shape on Tuesday afternoon, top Republicans – in Georgia and at the national level – attempted to shift the blame onto Democratic leaders in some of the hardest hit counties.
“The voting situation today in certain precincts in Fulton and DeKalb counties is unacceptable,” Raffensperger said on Tuesday. “My office has opened an investigation to determine what these counties need to do to resolve these issues before November’s election.”
But his office refused to accept any blame for the situation. Georgia’s statewide voting implementation manager, Gabriel Sterling, in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Tuesday night, said the coronavirus had effectively made it impossible to create enough avenues for people to vote. He pointed his finger at county officials, even as the issues that plagued the vote were recurrent and widespread.
Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic outside group, expressed concern over the state’s election processes heading into November and rejected top elections officials’ downplaying of the issues.
“Contrary to the bullsh*t that was spewed by the secretary of state, this wasn’t just in Atlanta. There were 20 counties that had to extend their voting hours,” Cecil said on Wednesday. “If you have 20 counties that have to extend their voting hours, something should tell you that there is a systemic problem and that systemic problem either comes from an intentional desire to suppress the vote, or it comes from incompetence, or some awful combination of the two.”
Waiting for hours
Jason Esteves, the chairman of the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education, waited in line for nearly three hours to vote Tuesday morning in Northwest Atlanta. Though he and his wife had both requested absentee ballots, only hers showed up before the primary.
Asked if he believed there was active ongoing attempt to suppress the vote, Esteves said it could be intentional or, possibly, “willfully negligent, where you’re doing it on purpose or you’re just completely ignoring your obligations so that it happens anyway.”
The complications described by officials from the secretary of state’s office, he added, could be solved – if the political will existed.
“If there was a county in Georgia that made it difficult – for whatever reason, whether intentional or accidental – for someone to buy a gun, you would have those same state leaders up in arms and making sure that they did whatever they could do to make that process more efficient and smoother,” Esteves said. “Yet here we are talking about voting and they are saying, ‘No, that’s the county’s fault.’”
Wednesday morning, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in a series of tweets attempted to frame the breakdown in Georgia as evidence in a broader Republican argument against the wider use of mail-in ballots, suggesting that Democratic efforts to push back against voter suppression “can end up actually suppressing votes itself.”
But the Tuesday’s issues in Georgia were also tied to new voting machines, which had been obtained by the state’s Republican government.
“The Election Day issues relating to the use of state-purchased voting machines represent an attack on the democratic process,” said Michael Thurmond, the CEO of DeKalb county, on Tuesday. “The Secretary of State’s office has alleged these issues resulted from a failure of county leadership. If there was a failure of leadership, it starts where the buck should stop, at the top. The eradication of any ‘learning curve’ rests squarely at the feet of the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his office.”
Cliff Albright, the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said Georgia’s plans for the election were fraught with problems from the beginning – starting with officials’ decision to not provide postage on mail-in ballots. (His group sued, arguing that amounted to a poll tax.)
His entire family planned to vote by mail, but Albright said his 20-year-old son, Jay, never received his absentee ballot, although he had submitted his application the same day as his parents had.
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In the end, Jay voted last week on the last day of in-person early voting, Albright said. He waited in line for six hours.
Albright said Georgia’s voting meltdown shows that the authorities either “don’t care about our vote or they care about our vote and they know the power of our vote and they are intentionally trying to suppress it.”
On Tuesday night, Albright joined other activists outside a nursing home in Union City, Georgia, serving snacks and drinks to the hundreds of people waiting in line to vote. The final voters cast their ballots shortly before midnight, he said.
Albright, however, sees one big upside in Tuesday’s debacle: In a primary election in which the presidential results didn’t matter, voters still were willing to wait for hours to make their voices heard in down-ballot races.
“People waited it out,” he said. “That means they are passionate about voting.”
Esteves told CNN that the twin convulsions that preceded the primary – Covid-19’s disproportionately deadly impact on African Americans and the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked a nationwide anti-racism protest movement – had only hardened the resolve of voters he stood among a day earlier.
“What I think the last couple of months have done – whether it’s the impact of Covid-19 or the spotlight that’s been placed on police brutality and racism – is excite more people, even those who would not have voted in the past, who would not have put their head down through those delays and challenges,” Esteves said.
“In the past, they may have left lines,” he said. “Now they’re staying in.”
CNN’s Dan Merica, Dianne Gallagher, Abby Phillip and Annie Grayer contributed to this story.