Elections 2020: Concerns around November are growing after the catastrophic primary situation in Georgia

Elections 2020: Concerns around November are growing after the catastrophic primary situation in Georgia

But the state’s inability to prepare and eliminate them, many election officials, activists and experts needed to quickly increase funding, readiness and training ahead of the November general elections.

As Congress has stalled on additional funding and support for states trying to prepare for Nov. 3, warning signs are gathering and time is running out. Now, a senior federal election official is urging lawmakers to act quickly to provide additional funding for states.

“Election officials I talk to are aware of the challenges, but I also know and see the real challenges in terms of resources, recruitment challenges and voter education challenges. All of these things cost money,” said Ben Howland, chairman of the U.S. Election Commission. “The $ 400 million in CARES law is a big deal, but I think the costs will be significantly higher.

“From the election officials I’m talking to, the need is clear,” he said.

After pushing back their primary elections twice, Georgia was still caught in the footsteps due to problems related to Kovid-19. Polling station locations in some counties changed at the last minute, after polling stations were withdrawn due to coronavirus.

Shanon Dillon-Johnson, a survey worker in Atlanta, was transferred to a new polling station 15 minutes before polling station planning.

“No one told me to come here by 6:42 p.m. after I’ve already been to Grady by 5:57,” Dillon-Johnson told CNN. “Call an email to my superiors and then suddenly get a call. Because it was like with us driving around looking for where we were supposed to go.”

Voters at several polling stations across the state reported late opening times. The problems in Georgia were compounded by the fact that the state introduced new voting machines that were not known to either voters or polls, causing even greater delays.

Election officials in Atlanta have also struggled to replace poll workers who are unable or unwilling to work during a pandemic.

The result was that in densely populated parts of the country, long lines stretched in blocks and voters waited for hours for their ballot. Some voters waited in line until 1pm on election night to have a chance to vote.

Voters influenced color

Similar scenes took place in Maryland, Washington and Wisconsin where officials were caught unprepared for the number of voters who voted in person.

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“The reality of what you see in Georgia today is largely a function of Covid. We lost a lot of polling stations because it’s summer time so schools are closed, churches are turned off, VFW halls are turned off,” said Gabriel Sterling, vote implementation manager throughout state in Georgia. “Specifically in Fulton County, they lost 40 locations and crashed many of those locations into mega neighborhoods where a lot of those incredibly long lines were seen.”

The problems also correspond to the pattern, observed by researchers, long lines, last-minute location changes and problems with the polling machines that seem to have the greatest impact on minority communities.

“Consistently at black polling stations and we went one after the other, including mine,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, who also faced three hours of waiting to vote on Tuesday. “People were in line and waited four or five hours – the machines didn’t get up until 12:30. It’s half a day.”

Already, data on Georgian e-voting applications showed that more white voters asked for absentee ballots than black, Asian and Latin American voters, suggesting that color voters were more likely to choose personal voting, according to the report. Brennan Center Analysis mail in the voting registration data.

On Tuesday, they faced long lines and long delays.

“This is a giant siren with a warning,” said Myrna Pérez, director of voting rights and the Brennan Center’s election program. “And that means the quality of today’s experience meant more to communities that didn’t vote by mail. And they didn’t pass.”

“It’s going to be suppressive,” Perez said.

Challenges of voting by mail

Georgia’s experience also suggests that other states and jurisdictions that are new to voting by mail are likely to face similar challenges as they want to quickly increase capacity for November.

In Georgia, some voters reported being confused by instructions that came with a ballot pointing to an “inner envelope” that was not provided.

Runbeck’s election services, which the state contracted to send ballots, told CNN it was a mistake that resulted from miscommunication between the company and state election officials who spoke less fluently about the specifics of the mail in the ballots.

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“It was just a misunderstanding by both sides, both Runbeck and the state that, okay, here’s what it actually means. And it created some confusion,” said Runbeck president and chief operating officer Jeff Ellington.

Stacey Abrams, who advocated voter suppression issues after her failed candidacy for governor of Georgia, said she had another problem with her ballots.

“Although I signed up pretty early in the process when it finally arrived, the return envelope was sealed,” Abrams told CBS News. “I tried to open it with steam because I watched a lot of ‘Perry Mason.’ It didn’t work. And that’s why I had to vote in person.”

“This is a complete fall and failure of the Secretary of State,” Abrams said.

The state received nearly 1.6 million absentee votes – several times more than they usually do during primary elections. County officials have been too busy and slow to process many applications.

“I’ll tell you where in my opinion the biggest breakdown was, how long it took us to process applications to vote against the absentees,” Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said. “People got these application forms six to eight weeks ago. And so when they didn’t get a response and couldn’t figure out what happened to their request, they didn’t believe they could respond in time if they got it at all.”

“So many people I spoke to today wouldn’t be okay if they got that ballot,” she added.

Fulton County employee Shaye Moss scans postage ballots at the Georgia World Convention Center during Georgia's primary election in Atlanta on Tuesday, June 9, 2020 (Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Atlanta voters, Kate Hausmann and Stephen Reid, said they submitted their requests to vote in absentia in mid-April by email, but received a response that first confirmed their request a few days before Tuesday’s election. Finally, they never received a ballot and voted in person after waiting two hours in line.

“The most frustrating thing is that we both sent our applications so early,” Reid said.

County Commissioner Hausmann said county election officials had made a decision to process the voting applications that were last sent via email. He claims that 8,000 of those applications were “lost”.

Concerns over the U.S. Postal Service

The workforce emerged as a central concern for Election Day. Most of the surveyed workers are elderly – coronaviruses are most at risk. And like Georgia, many will face the challenge of finding replacement workers and will need to increase staffing to process ballots in the weeks before election day.

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Georgian officials say a week before the election, their records showed that almost all (96%) of the required ballots had been delivered. And more were delivered in the last days before election day. Yet many voters still reported never getting theirs – in some cases two people in the same household both submitted ballots, but only one was submitted.

The U.S. Postal Service has insisted it will be prepared to deal with the increased amount of electoral mail, but doubts – especially among voters – remain about whether the postal service can rely on ballot handling.

There are isolated reports in Wisconsin a ballot box found after the election. It is unclear whether the ballots were lost at the post office in Georgia. But while some states that have worked for years to implement mail voting have designed a solution for tracking ballots, states that are newer in email voting are behind that curve.

“There has been legislative talk about how the USPS is creating end-to-end monitoring of the election mail,” said Howland, the commissioner for election assistance. “And I’d definitely like to see that on the spot.”

“We are able to do that and relatively speaking it would not be expensive to have such a system established in the USPS,” he added.

Even with an uninterrupted election day process, several election officials agreed on one thing: a flood of postcards, provisional ballots, and longer early votes will slow the summation of election night results. So slow that the results may not be known for days after the final ballots are submitted.

In Georgia, the day before the election, the state said there were still nearly 600,000 ballots left to be requested and sent to voters. Government officials cannot know how many of those voters chose to cast their ballots in person or whether that ballot was simply processed or not.

As the sun rose the day after the election, the final results remained unknown.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to specify the amount of money in the CUSTOMS Act.

CNN’s Dianne Gallagher and Pamela Kirkland contributed to this story.

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