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Georgia Voting Meltdown Leads to Uproar: ‘I Refuse Not to Be Heard’

[Update: Jon Ossoff holds strong lead as Georgia waits for primary results.]

ATLANTA — Georgia’s statewide primary elections on Tuesday were overwhelmed by a full-scale meltdown of new voting systems put in place after widespread claims of voter suppression during the state’s 2018 governor’s election.

Scores of new state-ordered voting machines were reported to be missing or malfunctioning, and hourslong lines materialized at polling places across Georgia.

Some people gave up and left before casting a ballot, and concerns spread that the problems would disenfranchise untold voters, particularly African-Americans. Predominantly black areas experienced some of the worst problems.

With Republican-leaning Georgia emerging as a possible battleground in this year’s presidential election and home to two competitive Senate races, the voting mess rattled Democratic officials and voters, with some blaming the state’s Republican governor and secretary of state for hastily instituting a new voting system without enough provisional ballots in case the voting machines did not function.

“It is a disaster that was preventable,” Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who narrowly lost the disputed 2018 governor’s race, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “It is emblematic of the deep systemic issues we have here in Georgia. One of the reasons we are so insistent upon better operations is that you can have good laws, but if you have incompetent management and malfeasance, voters get hurt, and that’s what we see happening in Georgia today.”

Security experts had warned that there was not nearly enough time to switch systems before the 2020 elections — especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, which ravaged the state and scared away hundreds of poll workers.

Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, blamed local officials in Fulton County, which includes most of the City of Atlanta, and said there were few issues elsewhere, while by midafternoon counties outside Atlanta had begun extending voting hours to account for time lost tending to the new machines.

Fulton County kept all of its polling sites open for two extra hours, until 9 p.m. Eastern. DeKalb County, just east of Fulton, kept seven precincts open late, one until 10:10 p.m. And Chatham County, which includes Savannah and is the state’s largest county outside greater Atlanta, kept 35 polling sites open until 9 p.m.

Ballot counting proceeded slowly on Tuesday night, with people still in line to vote in some places as the polls closed. No winners in major races had been called as of midnight.

“We have 159 counties and, by and large, 150 counties have really done a great job,” Mr. Raffensperger said. “We have one county that just stands out with glaring failures, and that’s Fulton County, and unfortunately that’s our largest county.”

Rick Barron, the Fulton County elections director, said the problems were “mostly equipment issues, many caused by different training challenges that we had.” He said Mr. Raffensberger “can’t wash his hands of responsibility,” but added that trying to simultaneously conduct an in-person election and a mail-voting one had stretched the county’s resources.

The difficulties renewed public attention on voting rights in a state where black citizens have long accused the white Republicans who control the state’s government and elections of racially discriminatory voter suppression.

While the worst problems were reported in greater Atlanta, no corner of the state had a fully functional voting experience, officials said. Nikema Williams, a state senator and the chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party, said that by 7:10 a.m., she had 84 text messages reporting polling sites that didn’t open, machines that didn’t arrive and lines that stretched for blocks.

“It’s a hot mess,” she said. “Our secretary of state has not adequately prepared us for today. We knew today was coming. If you show up and there’s not a machine, that’s a problem.”

In Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward — the neighborhood where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up — Marneia Mitchell arrived at her polling place five minutes before polls were to open at 7 a.m. She thought it was early enough to vote fast, avoid trouble and get on with her day.

Three hours later, she was still waiting in line, having moved about 60 feet from where she had started. At first voters were told that the machines were not functioning, and then that poll workers did not have the passwords necessary to operate them.

The line stretched three long city blocks and comprised hundreds of voters — a multicultural crowd in one of the city’s most cosmopolitan boroughs, many masked, some in lawn chairs, everyone sweating as the temperature pushed toward 90 degrees.

Ms. Mitchell, 50, a stationery designer who is African-American, was livid. “It’s disgusting,” she said. “It’s despicable.”

Around the corner, Terri Russell, 57, a retired worker for the Fulton County tax system, had also been waiting for three hours. She leaned on a beach chair that a do-gooder had offered her.

Ms. Russell, who wore a mask, said that she had bronchitis and asthma, and that she rarely left the house even when there was no pandemic. She said she had requested an absentee ballot but never received one. “I refuse not to be heard and so I am standing in line,” she said.

Just south of Atlanta’s airport, in Clayton County, the predominantly black precinct at the Christian Fellowship Baptist Church had run out of Democratic primary provisional ballots by 10 a.m., according to Fair Fight Action, the voting rights organization founded by Ms. Abrams.

An uncontested Republican stronghold since the Clinton administration, Georgia is now a presidential battleground state for the first time in a generation, drawing renewed scrutiny to the state’s cumbersome and long-suppressive voting systems. Along with the contest between President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Georgians will cast ballots this November in two competitive Senate races, the results of which could help tip the balance of the chamber.

The voting problems Georgia experienced on Tuesday were hardly a surprise. Residents reported requesting absentee ballots and waiting months for them to arrive — and some never came at all. Ms. Abrams said her absentee ballot had arrived with a sealed return envelope, and she was unable to mail it back. Ms. Williams waited five hours at an early-voting site after her absentee ballot never arrived in the mail.

David Dreyer, a Democratic state representative, said he learned Saturday that Fulton County was short 250 poll workers. Many of the usual poll workers are older and were afraid to work because of the coronavirus.

A training session for poll workers held Monday, Mr. Dreyer said, consisted of a one-hour training video provided by the secretary of state on how to use the voting machines — but “you needed an I.T. professional to figure it out.”

Georgia’s voting fiasco stemmed primarily from the 30,000 new voting machines the state bought last year for $107 million from Dominion Voting Systems, which is based in Denver.

Tuesday’s primaries were the first time the machines had been used statewide, though six rural, predominantly white counties used them for municipal contests in December — and experienced problems with voting and significant delays.

Mr. Raffensperger’s office at first defended the new machines on Tuesday and said they hadn’t malfunctioned, with an aide blaming local officials and inexperienced poll workers for the problems.

In an interview, Mr. Raffensperger accepted no blame for the hourslong waits or voting machine problems in Atlanta or elsewhere in the state.

Jurisdictions that ran out of provisional ballots, he said, should have ordered more of them before the polls opened. County elections officials should have found more younger poll workers to replace more experienced ones who bowed out because of the pandemic, he said. No element of the elections meltdown, Mr. Raffensperger said, was his fault.

“The counties run their elections,” he said. “The problems in Fulton County are the problems with their management team, not with me.”

Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that a disproportionate number of complaints by Georgians to the election protection hotline run by the committee and other advocacy groups had come from African-Americans. “We’re getting overwhelmed by the volume of calls from Georgia,” she said.

The machines bought by the state last year were instantly controversial. Security experts said they were insecure. Privacy experts worried that the screens could be seen from nearly 30 feet away. Budget hawks balked at the price tag.

And one of Dominion Voting Systems’ lobbyists, Jared Samuel Thomas, has deep connections to Gov. Brian Kemp, the Republican who defeated Ms. Abrams in 2018. Mr. Thomas served as Mr. Kemp’s campaign manager in his 2002 State Senate race, and as chief of staff to Mr. Kemp when he was secretary of state.

Mr. Thomas did not respond to messages on Tuesday, but Kay Stimson, a Dominion vice president, said the company had received just 50 “calls for election support” from Georgia by 3 p.m. “It’s a relatively low number given the scale,” she said.

Mr. Raffensperger spent more than $400,000 in federal election assistance funding in March to air a television commercial promoting the new machines as “protecting ballot integrity and making sure every ballot is counted.”

FreedomWorks, a conservative nonprofit backed by the billionaire Charles Koch, and the National Election Defense Coalition, a nonpartisan group focused on election security, warned Georgia against buying the machines in February 2019. In a letter sent to the State Senate’s Ethics Committee, the groups cited several concerns, including that the machines were difficult to set up before elections.

Election security advocates had urged the state to instead choose hand-marked paper ballots, which they argue are more secure and cost effective.

The A.C.L.U. of Georgia had warned in January — well before the coronavirus emerged as a concern for voters — that the state was ill-prepared for this year’s elections.

“They were issuing brand-new machines on a massive scale and that’s never been done before,” said Andrea Young, the executive director. “You need to put in more resources, more training for poll workers, for citizens.”

Ms. Young, who called the elections a “massive failure,” said that whether the voting difficulties were because of an intentional effort to suppress voting or incompetence, the end result was the same. “This is not acceptable in a democracy,” she said. “You can’t do democracy on the cheap.”

Marilyn Marks, a voting rights advocate with the Coalition for Good Governance, described a total breakdown of the new voting system when she went to a polling place in Atlanta around 10:30 a.m. All three elements — the electronic poll books that allow voters to check in, the touch-screen ballot-selection machines, and the ballot scanners — had broken down.

Ms. Marks said the attempt to switch systems during a presidential election year was doomed to be riddled with major glitches. “That would be like Walmart deciding that they wanted to change out their point-of-sale system on Black Friday,” she said.

At a news conference on Tuesday night, Ms. Abrams said, “The best intentions met the worst preparations, and we found ourselves in the midst of both incompetence and malfeasance.”

“No state should look like Georgia did today,” she added.

Richard Fausset reported from Atlanta, Reid J. Epstein from Washington, and Rick Rojas from Columbus, Miss. Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting from Ocean View, Del., Stephanie Saul from New York, and Michael Wines from Washington.

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