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Chaos in Georgia primary yields ‘moment of reckoning’ for election officials

New voting machines, trouble with absentee ballots and a pandemic combined to create chaos in Georgia’s Tuesday primary. After some voters waited in line more than five hours to cast their ballots, Georgia’s secretary of state called the problems “unacceptable” -- but blamed local election officials. Yamiche Alcindor reports and talks to Emory University’s Andra Gillespie about what went wrong.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Trouble with absentee ballots, new voting machines, and a global pandemic created a perfect storm for chaos in Georgia's primary election yesterday.

    Yamiche Alcindor reports on the challenge voters faced.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Judy, it was one of the biggest tests of the voting systems ahead of November's presidential election. And some voters in Georgia waited more than five hours to cast their ballots.

    Georgia's secretary of state called the problems — quote — "unacceptable," but he put the blame on local election officials during an interview with "NewsHour" this afternoon.

  • Brad Raffensperger:

    All of a sudden, we opened up these polling locations, and one of the county election directors said, well, this is the first time that my poll workers have actually touched the system today.

    And so if you don't provide training — and that's really a leadership issue — if you don't provide the management and the oversight to train your poll workers — I know that you had COVID. I get that.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For a closer look at what went wrong in Georgia, I'm joined by Andra Gillespie. She's a political science professor at Emory University.

    Thanks so much for being here.

    Obviously, a lot went wrong in Georgia. What happened with the voting machines? And what is — what do you make of the secretary of state kind of passing off the blame here?

  • Andra Gillespie:

    Well, in short, everything that could go wrong did go wrong yesterday.

    So, there are a number of things that could happen. One, there are some systemic problems with voting in Georgia. So counties that often had bottlenecks, like Fulton County, continued to have them.

    There are still reports there are places with large African-American populations that saw long wait times and perhaps didn't have the staff or the machines to be able to facilitate voting. And then, on top of that, we had the problem of COVID-19 creating additional procedures that were going to lengthen the time of voting, that were going to require people to stand outside for long periods of time.

    And you have the problem of this being the first statewide election that was using a new voter system. So, people were not used to having the system. And, thus, there were problems getting it set up and acclimating the poll workers to the system. And that was probably compounded by the COVID crisis on a number of dimensions.

    It would have been harder to have in-person training. And, in addition to that, there were places where you had poll workers who were reluctant to show up on Election Day because of their own health and safety. And so they canceled at the last minute, again, understaffing many precincts.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It sounds like a perfect storm of things going wrong.

    But there's also issues with mail-in ballots. More than one million were cast. That's a record. What happened there?

  • Andra Gillespie:

    Well, in particular in Fulton County, there were a number of people who requested absentee ballots who didn't receive them in time to use them and to turn them in, in time for the election. So, some of those people ended up having to stand in line as well.

    But they also had members of their own elections board staff come down with COVID-19. One actually passed away. And so that actually caused the office to close down for a period. And so they were overwhelmed with these absentee ballot requests.

    And so it doesn't seem like they were actually able to get a handle on things, you know, in time for some people to be able to get their ballots.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Looking ahead to the November election, how does what happened — how does what is happening in Georgia relate to other states? And what lessons should the nation as a whole be taking away?

  • Andra Gillespie:

    Well, this was a dress rehearsal for November.

    We expect that COVID is going to be with us in November, and that more and more people are going to want to vote by absentee because it's safer and it's more convenient.

    And judging by the lines that some people experienced in Georgia yesterday, some people actually think that it's a more efficient way to run. So, the state of Georgia and other states that are not used to having most of their electorate vote by mail are going to have to figure out how to refine their processes, so that voters get their ballots in time, so that they are returned in time, so that the instructions are clear.

    So, in the state of Georgia specifically, this is a moment of reckoning. This is a moment where the secretary of state's office and local elected officials need to evaluate what went right and what went wrong with their procedures yesterday. And they need to try to fix as much as possible.

    And the recriminations back and forth, with local and state officials pointing the finger at each other, probably isn't helpful. There's plenty of blame to go around. There seems to be a lack of communication on both sides in many instances. And so it may actually be appropriate for an independent third party to come in, interrogate the system, and quickly provide recommendations about what to do to go forward.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    We have about a minute left here.

    I want to ask you about black voters and voters of color. You called this a moment of reckoning. What did we learn from what happened in Georgia that particularly impacts black people and people of color? And how does that relate to the nation as a whole? What systemic issues do those communities usually face?

  • Andra Gillespie:

    So, there were procedural issues, and there were systemic issues. So, I don't want to just chalk this up to voter suppression, writ large. I don't think that that actually explains what's going on there.

    I think the charges of voter suppression come out because some of the precincts that have historically had problems with high turnout and a few machines or machines that don't work seem to be the places where there were problems again yesterday.

    And so we do need to ask ourselves whether there is a particular bias that routinely undercounts and underestimates the number of black voters that are going to be showing up in some of the minority-serving districts. We need to figure out whether or not we need to reallocate resources and reallocate machines to these precincts, so that they don't have these long lines in voting, when there are other places that didn't have the same problems with voting.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A moment of reckoning. Thank you so much for joining me, Andra Gillespie of Emory University.

  • Andra Gillespie:

    Thank you.

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