Murphy’s law was in full force in Fulton County — the Georgia county containing much of Atlanta — as it prepared for its pandemic primary in June. Everything that could go wrong pretty much did.
Voters faced long in-person voting lines coupled with issues in obtaining and sending in absentee ballots, making the county the poster child this summer for how the coronavirus outbreak was rocking elections. The voting nightmare was cast across national newspaper headlines, dominated cable news segments and ultimately prompted an investigation by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into how exactly things unraveled the way it did.
“I didn’t see any evidence of dereliction or indifference from them. I think they tried,” Chris Harvey, Georgia’s elections director, recently told the state elections board, which heard the findings of the investigation this week and last.
”Unfortunately, I believe the process in Fulton County of trying to deal with the absentee ballots was insufficient and ineffective,” he said.
Fulton County meanwhile said its election officials felt “vilified” by the state for how they’d been singled out for problems that arose all over Georgia during the primary. The board, nonetheless, voted to send allegations of election law violations over to the state attorney general’s office for further investigation.
“We know that many other counties, including ones in our metropolitan area as well as rural counties that are hours away, experienced long lines, malfunctioning voting machines and not enough poll workers, just to name a few. All issues caused by the pandemic,” Amanda Clark Palmer, a lawyer representing the local election officials, told the board on Thursday.
It’s undeniable that election officials were faced with a perfect storm of elements that were out of their control. The secretary of state investigation also pointed to unforced errors. The county is now taking measures for November’s election that it says will prevent things from going so horribly wrong again.
But the investigation revealed how any singular shortcoming — be it a failure to train new poll workers adequately, a lack of supplies for provisional voting, or unclear directions for submitting absentee ballot applications — could still cause chaos elsewhere in the country, if the lessons of the Fulton County fiasco aren’t fully heeded.
A Backlog Of Mail Ballot Applications That ‘Snowballed’
Georgia election officials were expecting a crush of absentee ballot applications as the pandemic took hold, particularly after the state sought to proactively send out applications to all Georgia voters. That move was intended to relieve county officials of some of the costs and logistics burdens of expanding their mail-in voting programs.
But Fulton County was thrown another curveball: a COVID-19 outbreak among its own election staff that took the life of one of its longtime staffers, while putting in the hospital a top election official.
The staffer’s death had a “devastating, emotional impact” on the office, Fulton County voter registration supervisor Caryn Ficklin said at a hearing last week on the investigation. “We were all touched by her passing and it took a toll on our production.”
Logistically, it meant that the office was closed for cleaning for four days in mid-April, right as the onslaught of applications was ramping up, putting election officials deep in a hole that they struggled to dig out of upon their return.
But that was only the start of Fulton County’s problems. The county email address the state listed on its materials for returning ballot applications automatically forwarded emails to 20 separate email accounts, meaning that every application took 20 times the space on the election office’s servers.
IT staff were constantly being called to assist with the problems caused by the 80,000 emailed applications the county ultimately received.
Officials adopted other questionable practices to manage the service issue, according to the state investigation. Some employees would immediately delete applications from their inbox — without taking record-ing keeping steps like printing them first — once they were processed, in order to open up server space (though one inbox was used to preserve all the applications that came in).
The digital chaos was exacerbated by the fact that voters were apparently not given a clear instruction for how they should submit applications via email, meaning all kinds of extensions (pdfs, jpegs, etc) were used to attach the forms, which made it difficult to print out some applications.
Trying to catch up on the absentee ballot backlog pulled staff away from dealing with another issue that would prove to be consequential: a pandemic-caused shortage in poll workers and locations to host voting sites.
Amid the frenzy, according to the state’s investigation, election officials also did an inadequate job of updating the ballot tracking platforms voters are supposed to be able to use to confirm their mail ballots’ status.
“Voters who had applied for their absentee ballots as early as April had not gotten ballots, hadn’t not gotten any communication, which resulted in them sending in more applications, which was adding to the snowball that was building already and was making the problem worse,” Harvey said.
This also had a domino effect on in-person voting, according to the investigators. Any voter who applied for an absentee ballot but then showed up in person had to fill out a form voiding their mail ballot, regardless of whether they received the ballot, and that led to longer wait times.
The secretary of state’s office reviewed the complaints of 254 county residents who reached out for the probe with stories of not receiving in time the mail ballots they applied for. That failure resulted in 107 of those residents not voting at all.
“This is just those that reached out to our office to submit a complaint,” Francis Watson, an investigator for the secretary of state, told the board last week. “I anticipate the numbers to be much higher for those that did not receive their ballots, as evidenced by the large numbers that went to the polls and reported not receiving an absentee ballot.”
In-Person Voting Debacles
Long lines were a problem all over Georgia during the June election, as poll workers struggled with the new voting machines that were being deployed for the first time during the primary. (The equipment was initially supposed to be rolled out during March’s presidential primary, which usually has lower turnout than the other primary election that happens later in the spring. But the elections were combined once the pandemic caused a delay to both.)
According to state officials, Fulton County was unique, however, in its inability to recover from initial delays caused by technological difficulties, while the pandemic caused other kinds of in-person voting confusion.
More than 40 polling locations were changed — the vast majority due to COVID-related closures — and some voters told the investigators that they didn’t receive in time the notices election officials sent out indicating that their precincts had moved.
The reworked location plan assigned way too many voters for single locations. Some 16,000 voters were assigned to a restaurant called Park Tavern.
Once voters showed up, some found waits as long as six hours to vote, and several people were seen leaving the lines. Poll workers told investigators they struggled to get in touch with county officials, and some reported waiting several hours for technicians to show up to help deal with the technological issues.
The state said that 54 percent of the poll managers they spoke to reported a lack of adequate supplies. The 50 sets of provisional ballot accoutrements the county provided for each precinct quickly ran out at some sites, as many more were needed for voters who showed up after seeing their attempts to vote absentee stymied.
A third of the managers told the state their polling places were not adequately staffed, while about half said that the training they received was inadequate, the state investigators said.
Palmer, the attorney for the local officials, stressed in her rebuttal to the investigation that the pandemic had disrupted in-person training plans, while hundreds of workers who had been trained in person before the pandemic bailed on working the polls because of the outbreak.
An online training session was developed instead, and the county also offered webinars for workers to call in questions.
“I recognize that virtual training, especially when you’re dealing with new equipment, is not as good as in person training, but given the limitations they were facing at that point in time, I don’t know what they could have done differently,” she said.