New voting machines face big test in coronavirus-struck Georgia primary

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia’s new voting machines will face their first major test in a June 9 primary election that has created far different logistical challenges for state officials than were anticipated before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The new machines, purchased last summer for $104 million, were already under intense scrutiny as Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office pushed to have the 30,000 new devices rolled out by the March 24 presidential preference primary, all while legal challenges sought to have them blocked.

Then coronavirus hit, upending the game plan for the March 24 contest in which the voting machines were poised for their first statewide use. Since then, primary elections have been postponed twice to June 9, precincts in high-volume voting areas like Atlanta have shuttered over safety concerns and Raffensperger has pushed for Georgians to hand in absentee ballots rather than head to the polls.

“What voters have to understand is that it’s going to look a little bit different when they show up this time,” Raffensperger said at a recent news conference.

“The fewer people voting on the actual election day,” he added, “the safer it will be for the voters, poll workers and all Georgians.”

Purchased last July from Dominion Voting Systems, the new machines – called ballot-marking devices – involve touchscreens and scanners that record a paper print-out of a voter’s completed ballot. State officials hail the new machines as more secure than the old all-electronic machines, which have been scrapped over cybersecurity concerns after 18 years of use.

Critics of the new machines have continued pushing for Georgia to adopt an all-paper voting system, arguing the new devices still record votes electronically and do not provide enough of an audit trail. Lawsuits filed in federal court against Raffensperger’s office aim to halt the new machines in Georgia, though judges overseeing those cases so far have not issued any injunction orders to do so.

To date, Raffensperger said the new machines have not experienced any major technical issues since being installed in time for the March 24 presidential primary. They have been used by hundreds of thousands of Georgians in early voting this year and during a six-county test run last fall, in which county officials reported some minor glitches.

“They’ve worked amazing,” Raffensperger said, while acknowledging that “we haven’t gotten the full use of those [machines] that we would like because of COVID-19.”

Coronavirus, which had sickened more than 45,000 people and killed 1,974 in Georgia as of Friday afternoon, has prompted elections officials to shift attention from having the new machines go off without a hitch to making sure polling places are kept clean and both voters and poll workers have protective supplies to stay safe.

To curb risks of spreading the virus, voters are being spaced out six feet apart from each other in line at local precincts and poll workers will all wear masks and gloves, Raffensperger said. His office is also supplying counties with roughly 60,000 stylus pens for voters to use on the touchscreens rather than their fingers. Without the styluses, polling places would have to completely shut down the touchscreens to disinfect them after each use.

On top of distancing and sanitizing measures, officials expect voting to take longer than normal due to fewer precincts being open in areas like Atlanta, as some local churches and schools that usually serve as precincts back out over coronavirus concerns.

In Savannah, the Chatham County Board of Elections is pushing to open alternative polling places after 12 of the county’s 92 voting sites “were uncertain.” And Fulton County, the state’s most populous, has lost more than 30 voting sites in recent weeks from its nearly 200-site total and is “struggling with Election Day locations,” said the county’s election director, Rick Barron.

“This has been an unprecedented situation for not only Fulton County but also other counties around the state,” Barron said at a recent news conference.

To ease the pressure of in-person voting, state and county elections officials have spent weeks urging Georgians to cast ballots by mail after Raffensperger’s office sent absentee ballot applications to all of the state’s nearly 7 million registered voters starting in March. So far, roughly 600,000 people have sent in absentee ballots of the more than 1.5 million who requested them, according to Raffensperger.

Handling the avalanche of absentee ballot requests has been challenging for many county elections officials, including Barron. Like other counties, his Fulton County staff have been swamped with processing absentee ballot applications and returned ballots, with many voters still complaining they have not received mail-in ballots weeks after requesting them.

Officials have asked voters to be patient as they sift through absentee ballot requests submitted by mail and online in recent weeks.

“It’s almost as though we’ve added a different type of an election on top of the one that we’re already running,” Barron said. “It has split our resources.”

Meanwhile, time is running out for mail-in voting. Ballots must be cast or received by county offices no later than 7 p.m. on June 9 or they will not count, Raffensperger said. If voters wait until the final few days, their absentee ballots may not circulate quickly enough through the mail to make it.

“It does put you at the mercy of the United States Postal Service,” Raffensperger said.

That time crunch prompted one member of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Donna McCleod, to conclude voters should ditch the mail-in method if they have not received an absentee ballot by Friday, May 29. If that’s the case, voters can still fall back on the new machines to cast their ballot.

“Please, please, please stay safe,” said McCleod, D-Lawrenceville. “This is not worth your life, but it is important for us to participate in our democracy.”

Raffensperger presses Georgians to turn in absentee ballots

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger discusses absentee voting in Georgia amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 28, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger renewed calls Thursday for voters who have requested absentee ballots to send them in the mail or put them in a local drop-off box ahead of the June 9 primary election.

More than 600,000 Georgia voters have returned absentee ballots so far, marking roughly 40% of the 1.5 million voters who requested them since March when the coronavirus pandemic escalated in the state, Raffensperger said.

At a news conference Thursday, Raffensperger urged voters whose mail-in ballots are “sitting on your kitchen table” to make sure they are returned by 7 p.m. on June 9, after which ballots will not be counted.

Raffensperger called for as many people as possible to vote by mail rather than in person to lower the risk for spreading the virus among voters and poll workers, many of whom are older individuals more vulnerable to the virus’ health impacts. State election officials are also allowing counties to install drop-off boxes where voters can place their absentee ballots instead of mailing them.

“We need as many of you as possible to use this safe and easy voting tool,” Raffensperger. “The [coronavirus] threat is still a potential threat to orderly elections and in-person voting.”

As of Wednesday, Raffensperger said more than 100,000 Georgians have voted in person during the early-voting period, which began May 18. Many precincts have already seen long lines with people forced to keep their distance from each other while queued up to vote and spend time canceling absentee ballots they requested since they are voting in person.

A handful of elections officials and a voter contracted the virus recently in McDuffie and Appling counties, highlighting the high risk brought by ramped-up voting numbers on June 9. The virus has also complicated efforts by county elections officials to process an influx of absentee ballot applications and ballots that have arrived in recent weeks.

Fulton County’s elections director, Rick Barron, noted Wednesday his office was slow to turn around ballots after a staff member died from coronavirus in early April. Barron said his office has since caught up with the application backlog amid complaints from many voters who still had not received a ballot weeks after requesting one.

“It has not gone as quickly as we had hoped,” Barron said in a virtual news conference Wednesday. “But we finally did get caught up, and we can look forward to the future and having this process go smoother.”

Speaking Thursday, Raffensperger attributed the slow processing time in Fulton to “missteps” and asked voters who have not yet received their absentee ballots to “just be patient.”

“You’ll get your ballot shortly,” he said.

To speed up ballot processing, Raffensperger said his office has sent high-speed scanners to counties to help them reduce their absentee ballot turnaround times. The scanners are part of the state’s new $104 million voting machines that will see their first large-scale statewide test on the June 9 primary.

Amid the push for mail-in voting, Raffensperger also touted Georgia’s push to keep polling places open during the early-voting period. On Thursday, he claimed the state has “maintained more in-person voting options during this pandemic than any other state in the country combined.”

“We have cut through the political rhetoric, ignored the talking heads and put you the voter first,” Raffensperger said. “We have maintained your right to choose in this election.”

Absentee voting urged amid long waits for June 9 primary early voting

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is urging voters to cast ballots by mail rather than in person for the June 9 primary election as the start of early voting this week drew long lines and wait times at many precincts.

Polls opened Monday across the state for the three-week early voting period ahead of the primary election, which was delayed from March 24 and May 18 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Precincts have already seen long lines despite relatively small turnout with voters forced to keep their distance from each other and spend time canceling absentee ballots they requested since they are voting in person.

The small sample size of early voters has state and county election officials gearing up for potential precinct challenges that may lie ahead in the upcoming June 9 primary, even as Georgia is poised for historic levels of mail-in voting.

Raffensperger and several county election officials asked voters Wednesday to consider taking the absentee-ballot route, either by sending their ballot in the mail or putting it in temporary drop-off boxes that counties have set up.

Doing so would help relieve Election-Day pressure for volunteer poll workers, many of whom are older adults more vulnerable to health risks from coronavirus, officials said. It would also cut down the amount of time voters spend waiting next to each other in line.

“Considering the health risks posed by COVID-19, Georgians should seriously consider submitting an absentee ballot by mail for the June 9 elections,” Raffensperger said in a statement Wednesday.

“While we understand the Georgia tradition of in-person voting and look forward to returning to normal in-person voting in future elections, the extra precautions necessary to preserve voter and poll worker health during the pandemic will result in long wait times and an increased health risk that could be avoided through absentee ballots for this election,” Raffensperger added.

Raffensperger’s office also announced Wednesday the state has purchased 35,000 reusable face masks and 30,000 bottles of hand sanitizer that will be sent to county election offices.

Nearly 1.5 million Georgians to date have requested absentee ballots for the primary, a figure much larger than the roughly 223,000 mail-in ballots cast in the high-turnout 2018 gubernatorial election. Of those, county election officials have already collected about 400,000 completed absentee ballots.

The push by Raffensperger for more voters to choose mail-in ballots comes despite President Donald Trump bashing the method Wednesday, calling it ripe for voter fraud. The president threatened to withhold federal funds for Michigan after that state – like Georgia – began sending absentee-ballot request forms to all its registered voters.

Raffensperger announced in mid-March that his office would send absentee ballot request forms to Georgia’s roughly 6.9 million voters. He has also created an advisory group for mail-in voter fraud, though critics have blasted that move as voter intimidation and unnecessary due to the lack of evidence of widespread absentee voter fraud in the state.

Early voting starts for coronavirus-impacted June 9 primary in Georgia

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Early voting for the June 9 primary in Georgia started Monday amid ongoing safety concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic coupled with close scrutiny over how the state’s new voting machines perform.

On the ballot are elections for federal, state and local offices plus the presidential preference primary, which has twice been delayed since its original March 24 date due to coronavirus. The general election will be held on Nov. 3. Runoffs, if needed, would be held on Aug. 11.

More than 40 sitting state lawmakers running for reelection in the General Assembly have drawn primary opponents. And several of the state’s 13 congressional seats are being hotly contested by Republican and Democratic candidates in metro Atlanta and North Georgia.

The three-week early voting period comes as county election officials roll out sanitizing and social-distancing measures aimed at reducing coronavirus risks in precincts, such as by cleaning ballot machines with sanitizing wipes and spreading out voters waiting in line.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday local precincts are spacing voters six feet apart while in line and providing poll workers with masks and gloves. Voters are being urged but not required to wear masks, Raffensperger said.

Precincts are also giving voters stylus pens to make ballot selections on touchscreens that are wiped before and after each use, Raffensperger said. Hand sanitizer is also available at precincts.

Raffensperger said he feels confident precincts will be ready to receive larger crowds on June 9 for Election Day.

“They’ll make it happen,” Raffensperger said Monday. “It’ll be a victory. It might be a rough one, but at the end of the day it will be a victory. People that want to vote will be able to vote.”

Early voting for the June 9 primary also will mark one of the first statewide uses of the new $104 million voting machines, which involve touchscreens and scanners that record a paper print-out of a voter’s completed ballot. The old machines in use since 2002 have been scrapped over cybersecurity issues.

State officials hail the new machines as more secure than the old all-electronic machines, while many critics have continued pushing through federal lawsuits for entirely paper ballots.

Purchased last July from Dominion Voting Systems, the new machines were on a tight timeline to roll out ahead of the March 24 presidential preference primary and saw a handful of glitches during a six-county test run last November.

Raffensperger said the new machines “are working great” just as they did for a shortened early-voting period that took place ahead of the then-scheduled March 24 presidential preference primary.

Beyond the new machines, coronavirus has upended the normal voting process in Georgia in ways that have spurred a huge push for absentee ballots and litigation aimed at delaying in-person voting.

As of Monday, Raffensperger said county officials had collected about 300,000 absentee ballots out of the nearly 1.5 million ballots requested statewide, a figure already dwarfing the roughly 223,000 mail-in ballots cast in the high-turnout 2018 gubernatorial election.

Last week, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to delay the primary again to the end of June and for officials to shelve the new touchscreens in favor of paper ballots. The suit argued the screens cannot be cleaned often enough to prevent coronavirus transmissions at precincts.

Meanwhile, dozens of state lawmakers seeking reelection to the General Assembly have been handcuffed by rules preventing them from campaign fundraising while the legislature remains suspended until later next month – even as their primary challengers have been allowed to raise cash.

The fundraising prohibition has not affected candidates for high-profile congressional races, particularly for both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats.

Roughly a half-dozen Democratic candidates vying for the seat held by U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican, will be on the primary ballot. The primary pits several high-profile Democratic challengers including Sarah Riggs Amico, Jon Ossoff and Teresa Tomlinson.

Heated primary contests are also being held in the 6th, 7th, 11th and 13th congressional districts in metro Atlanta; the 9th Congressional District in Northeast Georgia; and the 14th Congressional District in Northwest Georgia.

The state’s other U.S. Senate contest for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat will not be on the June 9 primary ballot since it is being held as a free-for-all open election between candidates of all parties on Nov. 3.

Lawsuit seeking June 9 primary delay tossed by federal judge

Rep. Patty Bentley tests out a new voting machine during a demonstration at the Georgia State Fair. (Secretary of State’s office)

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit seeking to postpone the June 9 primary election in Georgia until the end of this month and require state election officials to boost sanitizing procedures.

The suit, filed last month by a group of voters and advocates often at odds with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, argued election officials were not prepared to hold an election amid ongoing safety and health concerns over coronavirus. It asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to push the election back to June 30.

The suit also urged Judge Timothy Batten Sr. to force the state to scrap its new touchscreens for the primary in favor of all-paper ballots, which opponents of the new machines have sought in prior litigation.

In his ruling Thursday, Batten said the court should steer clear of the issue on grounds it could lead to improper political interference in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“Absent [clear] proof provided by the plaintiffs that a political question is not at issue, courts should not substitute their own judgments for the state election codes,” Batten wrote.

The ruling comes ahead of the early voting period for the primary that is set to start Monday. It also comes as absentee ballots continue pouring in to county election offices in what is shaping up to be the biggest vote-by-mail tally for an election in Georgia history.

County offices have collected more than 250,000 absentee ballots so far out of nearly 1.4 billion ballots that have been requested statewide, Raffensperger’s office said. That number already dwarfs the roughly 223,000 mail-in ballots voters cast in the high-turnout 2018 gubernatorial election.

In a statement Friday, Raffensperger said the lawsuit’s dismissal will let election officials concentrate on gearing up for in-person voting, including efforts to distribute protective and sanitizing equipment for county election boards. He called the dismissal a warning shot for other groups like the American Civil Liberties Union challenging his office’s work toward holding the primary during the pandemic.

“I hope that the other groups who have asserted these same claims in other lawsuits will see the error of their ways, stop wasting taxpayer dollars, and drop their lawsuits,” Raffensperger said.

Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance that brought the suit, said the group is weighing possible next steps like appeal. She disagreed with Batten’s hands-off approach, arguing voter-rights issues spurred by coronavirus are exactly the type of matters in which judges and the court should weigh in.

“We need the court to intervene and bring some relief or else we are going to continue to see a chaotic handling of the election,” Marks said Friday. “It’s just going to get worse.”

Republican candidates spar in Northwest Georgia congressional seat race

Republican candidates for a congressional seat in Northwest Georgia took turns Monday touting their similar conservative views and pouncing on supposed weak spots in each other’s backgrounds during a debate ahead of the June 9 primary.

In all, nine Republican candidates have signed up for the race to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a Republican, who announced late last year that he will not seek re-election. He has held the 14th District seat since first winning election in 2010.

The reliably Republican district stretches from Paulding and Haralson counties north through Rome, Calhoun and Dalton to the Tennessee line.

Of the nine Republican candidates, eight appeared in Monday’s debate hosted by the Atlanta Press Club. They alternated between praise for President Donald Trump and his administration’s policies, disdain for congressional Democrats and a handful of jabs at each other.

The race has also drawn one Democratic candidate, Kevin Van Ausdal, an implementation specialist. Van Ausdal did not participate in the primary debate because he is the only Democratic candidate.

The Debate

Without much daylight between them in terms of policies and values, some of the Republican candidates took to attacking each other’s records.

John Barge, a former Georgia state school superintendent, singled out Marjorie Taylor Greene’s decision to back out of the 6th District congressional race earlier this year and enter the 14th District contest. Barge labeled Greene an “opportunist”.

“I think you’re running to get to Washington,” Barge said.

Greene, a construction company owner, stressed that her staunchly conservative values align with many of the district’s voters and touted endorsements from influential members of Congress like U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.

“I’m 100% pro-life, 100% pro-gun, and I’m the strongest supporter of President Trump and always have been,” Greene said.

Greene then attacked Barge for implementing federal Common Core education standards while serving as state superintendent. He batted back the criticism, saying he was ordered to do so by the state Board of Education despite not supporting the program.

Barge also said he supports ending federal oversight of schools by abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and handing authority over education matters and funding to states.

“I think giving states the flexibility to direct those funds in the way they need them is the way to go,” Barge said.

John Cowan, a neurosurgeon who owns a toy shop, was criticized by some candidates for buying products made in China and not in Northwest Georgia. Cowan defended his business practices, saying he has experience negotiating with Chinese manufacturers.

“I’ve been tougher on China than anyone on this panel because I’ve actually engaged them,” Cowan said.

Matt Laughridge, a businessman, drew a line in the sand by saying that he thinks “personally, we should cut off China, not team up with them.”

“If you’re sick of seeing ‘Made in China’ on everything, elect me,” Laughridge said.

Bill Hembree, a former state House representative, was blunt about Cowan.

“You’re getting rich off China,” said Hembree, who also noted he supports term limits.

Cowan also said he favors moves to reopen local economies emerging from the coronavirus pandemic amid his background in the medical field and that there needs to be a balance between science and economic needs.

“We have to reopen our economy and preserve our freedoms and meld the two together,” Cowan said.

Greene also said she backs calls by Trump and Gov. Brian Kemp to reopen many local businesses, describing efforts to reopen local economies as “the greatest stimulus.”

“I believe more than anything that we need to save our economy and stop socialism,” Greene said.

For his part, Hembree touted his experience in the Georgia House of Representatives, noting that he decided to run for Congress to back Trump amid opposition from congressional Democrats.

“We need to save this country and we need to save the future,” Hembree said.

State Rep. Kevin Cooke, R-Carrollton, also highlighted his General Assembly experience as an asset setting him apart from his competitors, particularly as congressional and state lawmakers deal with the current economic fallout of COVID-19.

“It very much highlights the difference between my candidacy and my opponents’ candidacy,” said Cooke, noting he would support requiring the federal government to have a balanced budget.

Andy Gunther, a retired U.S. Marine and businessman, was among several candidates who advocated for a balanced budget. He said his business experience would go a long way toward righting financial troubles at the federal level.

“A lot of the solutions to the problems that we have in the federal government are business solutions,” Gunther said.

Ben Bullock, a real estate investor and U.S. Air Force veteran, urged conservatives to oppose moves by many Democratic leaders to provide universal health-care coverage especially amid coronavirus, framing such efforts as “authoritarian behavior on the left.”

“To me, it is a total privilege,” Bullock said.

Bullock also echoed other candidates in calling for U.S. troops to return from the war in Afghanistan.

“It’s a fight that is now [Afghanistan’s] and not ours anymore and that needs to be reflected in our national security policy,” Bullock said.

Clayton Fuller, a prosecutor and U.S. Air Force veteran, did not participate in Monday’s debate because he was deployed with the Air National Guard to assist with the coronavirus response.