Democracy was underway in the few states that held primaries this month. In one state, however, it nearly sputtered to a halt.
Kristen Clarke serves as the President and Executive Director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Photo courtesy Lawyers’ Committee Civil Rights Under Law
“We are deeply disturbed by widespread reports of malfunctioning machines, long lines, polling sites that opened late and insufficient numbers of back up paper ballots in Georgia,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “These problems were avoidable yet recurring problems in Georgia that are resulting in the potential disfranchisement of voters across the state.”
With a recent history of voter roll purges, vote restrictions, poll closings and malicious targeting of Black GOTV workers with unfounded prosecution, Georgia has never successfully framed itself as a true democracy. Clarke said with its pockmarked history, the state “should have been better prepared for this moment.”
“Based on the high volume of complaints that we have received on our 866-OUR-VOTE hotline, we know well that voters in Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb Counties are experiencing a system that is failing them today,” Clarke announced on the day of the primary.
Georgia’s primary left people in long lines for up to six hours, just to cast ballots, thanks to some 80 consolidated poll locations and malfunctioning vote machines. Naturally, the problems were more pronounced in majority-Black communities, which tend to vote Democrat. The Republican Georgia secretary of state sees no connection there, of course. New machines, he says, brought the state back to paper ballots, but because they were new, poll workers made goofy mistakes like inserting voter access cards upside down, and so forth. One precinct manager griped that the touch pads on the machines weren’t working.
Nonsense, says former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, whose own election was riddled with Georgia-style problems, including a massive voter purge instigated by her then-opponent Brian Kemp—who also just happened to be secretary of state at the time. Since becoming governor, Kemp has been replaced by fellow white Republican Brad Raffensperger.
“It was an unmitigated disaster because the secretary of state, who is in charge of elections, claims that he had no responsibility for the actual performance of elections,” Abrams announced on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Abrams said the fault lay with Raffensperger, who failed to coach workers on the new machines. “This is all due to the fact that the secretary of state failed to train, failed to give good direction, failed to invest but he found it possible to spend $400,000 to film a television commercial about himself purchasing new machines,” said Abrams. “That could have paid for 1,600 poll workers, which certainly would have made things easier yesterday for Georgians.”
Local election committees and county clerks also exchanged barbs with Raffensperger, arguing the secretary of state’s office is where the buck presumably stops. Local officials warned weeks before the election that a treacherous one-two combo of limited training and reduced polling locations due to COVID-19 was barreling the state toward a Tuesday disaster. In addition to that, county election offices failed to mail out the swarm of absentee ballots requested by people looking to avoid virus exposure at polling areas.
Rick Barron, election chief of Fulton County, told reporters that Raffensperger couldn’t run from some of the blame.
“He’s the head election official in the state, and he can’t wash his hands of all responsibility,” Barron told the Washington Post.
Dominion Voting Systems, which supplied Georgia with the new voting machines, claimed to have received a high number of poll worker calls, all looking for technical help. This suggested a distinct lack of training and preparedness. (The secretary of state’s office is in charge of training.)
While long lines signaled a disaster of democracy, democracy nevertheless happened. Just ask the Democrats who were ousted in Democratic primaries.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution called it “The Jolt: A tough night for Democratic incumbents, and a few Republican ones, too.” One GOP state lawmaker got ousted, in a state where incumbents tend to win their seat every election year until retirement, thanks to gerrymandering. However, two Democrats are now in trouble, with one Fulton County DA and one Democratic congressman getting pulled into primary runoffs. State Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth, finished in sixth place, despite dumping tons of money in TV ads, while well-known U.S. Rep. David Scott, of Atlanta, got briefly sucked into a primary runoff against U.S. Rep. Keisha Waites. (the count is still ongoing, and the run-off may be over if Scott’s votes tick over the next few days.)
There is unquestionably a little more chaos and turnover on the Democratic side in Georgia, but this may have less to do with precinct anarchy and more to do with the raw influx of new, passionate voters choking state rolls.
Voter data tabulation website GeorgiaVotes.com reports 1,875,737 people applied to vote in the combined primary for the 2020 election. This is a marked uptick from the 2016 primary, which only had 351,442 applicants. In fact, according to GeorgiaVotes.com, total turnout for the 2020 combined primary was a whopping 434 percent higher than the 2016 election. More of those applicants, according to the website, applied as Democrats. This probably isn’t too much of a surprise, considering that more and more of those new voters are young and racially diverse; also, young, non-white voters tend to skew Democrat. Nearly one-third of Georgia’s voters now are younger than 35 years old. And while most Georgia voters are still white, that majority is shrinking with each election year.
The influx of new, minoritizied voters means the Democratic Party is likely to experience a kind of upheaval at the foundation level, according to Southern Echo former organizer Mike Sayer.
Scroll a little further down that page at GeorgiaVotes.com and you might notice that 69.4 percent of voters who cast ballots in the 2020 primary didn’t participate in the 2016 primaries. That’s a gobsmackingly-large number of new voters, and new voters tend to be passionate—and probably a little angry. Additionally, they tend to take their anger out first on the party with which they vote.
Sayer said he was alarmed by the long lines in the Georgia primary, and faulted Republican efforts to suppress Black voters as the chief cause. He said he was not astounded by the threat that new voters posed to Democratic incumbents, however, particularly if the new voters are Democrats. That’ll be the first place they get to flex their political muscle, after all.
“It’s not surprising that there’s a relationship between having a lot of new voters and having turnover,” Sayer told The Lighthouse.
What this means for the immediate future of Georgia in the upcoming November elections could be something of a sea change, if the numbers continue along these lines and young people continue to stay angry and politically active.
As discouraging as it can be—and it is, indeed, discouraging—try not to let the long lines stop you, new voters. Get in there.