Voters wait in a long line at the Central Park polling place in Atlanta on Primary Election Day, June 9, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Hours-long waits in line and technical hiccups with new voting machines greeted Georgians who headed to the polls Tuesday for the state’s primary election amid safety measures prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Voters and local officials reported issues with using the new $104 million voting machines and the ability of short-handed volunteer poll workers to troubleshoot problems as voting lines stretched at polling places from Atlanta to Savannah.

State elections officials warned ahead of Tuesday lines and wait times would be longer as polling places space people six feet apart, take time to clean voting areas and use fewer voting machines to limit capacity. But technical issues seen in some areas like Atlanta and Savannah were unexpected, compounding already long lines.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger traced problems to “a lack of training and planning” by county elections officials, noting most of Georgia’s 159 counties were not experiencing technical issues with voting machines. Counties like Cobb, Richmond and Muscogee were running smoothly, he said.

“By and large, what it comes down to is the competence of the county director,” Raffensperger said in an interview. “It’s not really a machine error. What it’s been is user error, just lack of training for the poll workers.”

Mail-in gone missing

That assessment did not calm frustrations shown by voters at polling places in Atlanta such as at Central Park, where voters queued up for more than two hours Tuesday morning. Many in line said poll workers were struggling to operate the new machines, forcing them to hand out paper provisional ballots while waiting for technical support to arrive.

“We’re hot, we’re tired, we’re bothered,” said one voter.

Lori Krugman, a voter at Central Park, called it a “disaster of a line” that she had wanted to avoid by voting absentee but never received a mail-in ballot after twice requesting one since April. Daniel Murdoch also had to brave the line after not receiving a requested mail-in ballot.

“Not good,” he said.

Concerns over the primary’s integrity were inflamed Tuesday even as more than 1.2 million Georgians cast ballots by mail and during the early voting period ahead of Election Day, a record early turnout that included roughly 950,000 absentee ballots in a push to curb in-person voting amid the virus.

The surge in vote-by-mail and early voting came as state and local elections officials faced a daunting challenge to keep polling places sanitized and safe for voters and poll workers, particularly with polling places in areas like Fulton County closed or consolidated due to COVID-19.

Hours in line

But from the get-go Tuesday, voters in Atlanta like Shannon Christian were angered by what appeared to be a severe lack of preparation on the part of local elections officials.

“Outraged,” is how Christian put it as she approached the three-hour mark of her wait in line at the Central Park precinct.

“It’s frustrating,” said her companion, Gabriel Baawo, both of whom were in a group of people tired from the wait but still fired up to vote after joining protests last week over police brutality and racial injustice.

“I got tear-gassed last Monday,” Christian said. “We’re out here.”

Extended waits and technical problems were not confined to Atlanta. In Savannah, Mayor Van Johnson said Tuesday morning he had “been inundated with calls and messages” from upset voters at polling places in the coastal city.

“This appears to be a widespread issue as individuals have told me that they’ve had to go to work or, in some cases, they were asked to come back at a later time,” Johnson said at a news conference.

Johnson added state and county elections officials should have been better prepared for the issues seen Tuesday, noting the presidential preference primary was delayed twice from its original March 24 date.

“Certainly, we’ve had enough time and enough delays at this point where it should be right,” Johnson said.

Placing blame

State officials were quick to criticize the performance of county officials. Gabriel Sterling, the secretary of state’s chief operating officer, said some counties saw “logistical deployment issues” including poll workers who tried to use voter check-in cards “upside down,” but that officials had not seen any glitches with the new machines.

Sterling also noted state officials fielded reports that poll workers were “not understanding setup or how to operate voting equipment,” a shortcoming he and Raffensperger pinned on local elections directors.

Since purchasing the new voting machines last year, Raffensperger’s office has largely left it to county officials how to provide training for poll workers. He said Tuesday his office provided several rounds of training for county and regional leaders and set up an online training portal for local precincts to use.

“We think that we’ve done a great job on the training aspect,” Raffensperger said. “Other counties are getting it right today.”

But many lawmakers and voting rights advocates were dismayed by Raffensperger’s response, arguing the buck should stop with him as the state’s elections chief.

“Talk about throwing under the bus,” said Johnson, Savannah’s mayor.

Investigation called

State Democratic leaders called for Raffensperger to take more direct action to patch any problems with training or equipment prior to elections set for later this year including the Nov. 3 general election.

“The Secretary of State’s job is to provide adequate support and training for counties as he implemented Georgia’s new voting system, and he has failed,” said Maggie Chambers, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Georgia.

And Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, ordered a lawmaker-led investigation into the “unacceptable deficiencies” of the primary that aims to look at more than poll workers, who he said “do not deserve to be blamed for systemic problems beyond their control.”

“The legislative branch of government has an obligation to go beyond the mutual finger-pointing and get to the truth,” Ralston said.

Meanwhile, facing long wait times, many voters hunkered down Tuesday to cast ballots in what they view as the start of an important election cycle that includes contests for president, U.S. Senate, Congress and General Assembly seats.

At St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta, Aroona Toor finally cast her ballot just after 9 a.m. after standing in line since polls opened at 7 a.m. Her feet were tired, her back hurt, but Toor said she felt proud to vote.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” she said.