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Battleground: Ballot Box | Voting Issues In Georgia: How We Got Here
In this bonus episode of "Battleground: Ballot Box," host Stephen Fowler chronicles how voting in Georgia has changed from 2018 to 2020.
Stephen Fowler: Georgia is a battleground on two fronts this November: who we vote for and how those votes are counted. I’m Stephen Fowler, and I’m covering voting rights for Georgia Public Broadcasting. I’m also the host of the GPB podcast Battleground: Ballot Box. And for the last two years I’ve been covering how voting works and, sometimes, how it doesn’t.
Newscast: Chaos in Georgia as some voters waited for hours to cast ballots in yesterday’s primary election.
Newscast: The largest rollout of elections equipment in U.S. history is happening in Georgia.
Poll Worker: We have been working since the pandemic —
Newscast: A disaster in Georgia.
Poll Worker: This is very unprecedented, and I can’t — I’ve been doing this 20 years — and I can’t wrap my head around everything that needs to be done right now.
Stacey Abrams: Georgia is a battleground this year.
Stephen Fowler: For years, Republicans have dominated government at the state and federal level, but a rapidly diversifying population plus a new wave of energy behind 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams put her within 50,000 votes of becoming the first Black female governor in U.S. history.
Stacey Abrams: Under the watch of the now former secretary of state, democracy failed Georgia. Georgians of every political party, every race, every region —
Stephen Fowler: In this special edition of the show, we’re looking at the rapidly changing nature of elections in our state, starting with the 2018 governor’s race where, 10 days after the election, Stacey Abrams took to the stage and gave an unconventional concession speech.
Stacey Abrams: I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election. But to watch an elected official — who claims to represent the people of this state, baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote — has been truly appalling. So let’s be clear: This is not a speech of concession.
Stephen Fowler: The gubernatorial race was roiled by controversy over who gets to vote and how they do it. On one hand, Kemp was the state’s top elections official, a position he did not resign until after Election Day and it seemed he would emerge victorious. During the campaign, the Republican secretary of state was embroiled in several controversies, including allegations of voter suppression, the removal of hundreds of thousands of inactive voters from the rolls through aggressive list maintenance and, the weekend before the 2018 election, came an especially explosive allegation:
Newscast: Brian Kemp says Democrats tried and failed to hack the state’s voter registration system…
Stephen Fowler: On the other side of the aisle, Stacey Abrams made voting rights a central part of her platform, launching an unprecedented get-out-to vote effort that included registering non-white voters, a huge push for absentee-by-mail voting, and challenging policies that made it harder for some Georgians to cast their ballot. After the election, she launched a new voting rights group, Fair Fight, that has taken the rallying cry of equal access to the polls nationwide. Meanwhile, there were other changes brewing. Earlier in 2018, Kemp established the Secure, Accessible, Fair Elections Commission, a group of lawmakers, county elections officials and other experts. They met several times to discuss options to replace Georgia’s aging touchscreen electronic voting machines that stored votes on memory cards with something more modern and more … secure. At one hearing in Macon, public commenters wanted the state to change to hand-marked paper ballots, where voters fill in ovals by hand — much like absentee ballots are today. Former Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat, told the group about the last time Georgia changed voting systems in the early 2000s, from a hodgepodge of paper ballots, lever machines, and locally decided methods to a uniform direct-recording electronic voting machine. If you add paper into the mix, she said, having it all marked by humans could lead to confusion and some headaches if people did not fully fill in the ovals.
Cathy Cox: This commission doesn’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater and solve one problem, i.e. security of a piece of technology, and go back to issues that create a lot of problems for voters.
Stephen Fowler: Still, the lone cybersecurity expert in the group, Georgia Tech Computer Science Professor Dr. Wenke Lee, recommended hand-marked paper ballots as the most secure option. He said that they ensure voters can check their choices and trust the outcome of the election.
Wenke Lee: And also — I also want to object to this notion that I’m possibly the single person who is holding this opinion. I mean, you have heard from all these citizens, you know, through public hearings and email and so on....
Stephen Fowler: But the commission ultimately recommended Georgia move to a ballot-marking device system that prints out a paper ballot with the voter’s choices.
Commission Member: The fifth recommendation, Georgia’s new voting system should include new vote casting devices, new scanners, and new poll books. There should be paper backups for each of these systems to the extent possible, including paper registered-voter lists and ballots.
Stephen Fowler: Around the same time as those final recommendations were hashed out, five different voting machine vendors hawked their wares in a train depot event space in the shadow of the state Capitol. Incoming Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was there, as well as several lawmakers and members of the public who wanted to get their hands on the potential future of Georgia’s elections. The state was widely expected to pick a system made by Election Systems and Software, headquartered on John Galt Boulevard, which was the state’s current vendor. For their system, voters would insert a piece of paper into a touchscreen machine, make their selections and then print choices on that paper before putting it into a scanner. There were demonstrations from Hart InterCivic, Smartmatic, and Dominion — but we’ll come back to them. One vendor, Clear Ballot, used hand-marked paper ballots and a complicated software system to scan ballots that shows every single mark made on one screen. That way, officials could have determined what was meant to be a vote and what was a stray mark. And at this demonstration, too, advocates for hand-marked paper ballots showed up to try and convince lawmakers that the ballot-marking devices would be a boondoggle for taxpayers, that millions of dollars would be wasted on technology, and the security risk would remain just as great if not greater.
Marilyn Marks: Yeah, the barcodes are printed on a piece of paper, but it doesn't make them auditable just because they're on a piece of paper. You know, you and I can't read a barcode. Almost all of these vendors have the right options available, but they’re trying to sell their most expensive yet most inferior products, here.
Stephen Fowler: That’s Marilyn Marks, the head of a nonprofit voting rights group called The Coalition for Good Governance. While lawmakers and elections officials were working through the process of picking a new voting machine, Marks and a group of Georgia voters were waging a battle in court over electronic voting since 2017 — and it’s still ongoing, in fact. But back under the Gold Dome, debate over the bill that would authorize a new voting system, House Bill 316, was one of the most contentious topics of 2019. Secretary Raffensperger dismissed hand-marked paper ballot activists as people, quote, “outside of the mainstream,” citing a poll conducted by a firm — with ties to his campaign for office — that found 3 in 4 Georgians were supportive of new touchscreen voting machines.
Brad Raffensperger: You have to understand that a lot of people that support the touchscreen technology, they don't show up at these meetings. They're out there and they're just working their jobs. They're trying to, you know provide for their families and they feel really comfortable about it. And so they're not up in arms, and they think we're going to get it right in the General Assembly.
Stephen Fowler: In the General Assembly, debate raged over the omnibus House Bill 316 that authorized $150 million for a new voting system. The bill also enacted numerous changes to election laws after court fights following 2018, making Georgia the only state in the country to only use ballot-marking devices for in-person voting. For hours and hours and hours in the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans sparred over language in the bill and how to move Georgia’s elections into the 21st Century. They heard testimony from county elections officials who said the new devices were similar enough to Georgia’s old system that it would limit confusion, and it was also new enough to provide more security and reliability for voters. And still, there was testimony and public comment that hand-marked paper ballots were cheaper, more secure, and a better path for Georgia. Still, Republicans moved on and passed the measure through the House and the Senate, and Governor Brian Kemp signed it into law. HB 316 required audits of election results, starting with the presidential contest in 2020, and extended the time frame in which voters could be inactive before having their registrations canceled. Lastly, another big thing: It curbed Georgia’s rigid “exact-match” policy, which flagged voter registrations that were not identical to state or federal databases. So then, the next big questions emerged: what vendor was it going to be, how much would it cost, and when would everyone start using the new system? Well, at the end of July 2019, we had our answer.
Newscast: State of Georgia has awarded a new contract to provide verified paper ballot voting systems. No, it should be up and running for next year’s presidential primary. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, he actually announced the contract is with Dominion Voting Systems. The initial contract is for $89 million and will reach 106 million over the next ten years.
Stephen Fowler: Dominion Voting Systems did not score the highest on technical evaluations but was the lowest cost proposal and, perhaps importantly, they said they could do the largest single rollout of a voting system in just a few months with little issue. That was a lofty goal in the best of circumstances, but the court case brought by hand-marked paper ballot activists threatened to make the whole thing moot. Enter Federal Judge Amy Totenberg, who said that Georgia officials buried their heads in the sand and allowed Georgia’s election system to grow way too old and archaic. She had just heard two days of testimony about why Georgia’s new system wouldn’t be any better, and how state and county officials said it would be too disruptive to interrupt the ongoing procurement process. Judge Totenberg had previously denied a request to switch to hand-marked paper ballots just before the 2018 election, writing that the “massive scrambling… will seriously test the organizational capacity of the personnel handling the election, to the detriment of Georgia voters." But she also said there was a tide of evidence that Georgia’s old system was neither secure nor reliable. So, on August 15, Judge Totenberg denied a request to move the 2019 elections to hand-marked paper ballots once again, with a notable exception.
Newscast: A federal judge has ordered the state to stop using its outdated machines after the end of the year. Our Rebecca Schram is live at the courthouse and this is not a win for either side is it?
Stephen Fowler: The ruling put mounting pressure on the state to pilot the new system in November and get 159 counties’ worth of people trained before the March 2020 presidential primary — not to mention acclimating voters. At the Georgia National Fair in Perry, thousands of people took breaks from turkey legs and carnival rides to try out these new voting machines, helped by high school student ambassadors like 15-year-old Camila Negron from Savannah.
Camila Negron: Um, I feel like I'm helping people understand how easy voting is. And I feel like I'm contributing to our future in a way, ‘cause I'm allowing people to see how easy it is and make them realize, ‘Oh I can just vote in like two minutes. I’ll do that.’
Stephen Fowler: The pilot elections in local contests across the state had some issues: Poll workers not using the check-in iPads correctly, a scanner jamming and not enough power outlets for the voting equipment. Then there was controversy over Georgia’s voter-roll cleanup, required by federal law but still grabbing headlines. More than 300 thousand registrations were set to be canceled. Some died, others moved away, but the biggest eyebrow raisers were inactive voters who did not participate in years.
Sara Tindall Ghazal: I think it is wrong and anti-democratic for voters to be disenfranchised, stripped of their right to vote, because they choose to not exercise their vote.
Stephen Fowler: One lawsuit and several rounds of math later, about 286 thousand registrations were ultimately removed. By the end of 2019, the secretary of state’s office kicked into overdrive to deliver the equipment needed to run the new voting system to all of Georgia’s counties. Standing in a DeKalb County warehouse, Secretary of State Raffesnperger said the four largest counties would all be getting their machines after the holiday season. Just ahead, breaking down the whirlwind year that 2020 has become, from the final deliveries of voting equipment to the coronavirus pandemic and how officials plan to avoid a repeat of the catastrophic June primary. This is Battleground: Ballot Box from GPB.
Stephen Fowler: This is Battleground: Ballot Box, I’m Stephen Fowler. We’re on a journey through the recent history of voting changes in Georgia, and left off at the end of 2019 as the state began delivering new voting machines to all 159 counties. Now it’s a new year. Georgia has been legally ordered to no longer use its old and paperless voting machines. By mid-February of this year the final trucks of voting equipment leave a nondescript warehouse northwest of Atlanta. Gabe Sterling, the Secretary of State’s resident logistics manager for this rollout, said it was a massive undertaking to deliver everything in a timely manner.
Gabe Sterling: It is next to impossible to explain how many things that had to go out in such a short period of time, because it’s not just the big touchscreens. It’s the peripherals, it’s the ADA equipment that has to be tested and go out. It’s every printer, it’s every scanner, it’s checking all the ballot boxes to make sure they’re not cracked or broken on their locks. It is literally — I think — I did the math: It’s something close to 200,000 pieces — of different pieces and parts and probably even more than that.
Stephen Fowler: All the while, county elections officials have been preparing for the first big test of the new voting system, the March 24 presidential preference primary. But then…
Newscast: Now back to the breaking news about the coronavirus, Gov. Brian Kemp just confirming the first two cases here in Georgia.
Newscast: Starting with breaking news tonight at 9, Georgia’s presidential primaries postponed because of fears over the coronavirus. State elections officials saying tonight the primary will be moved from March 24 to May 19.
Newscast: New tonight: Georgia is pushing back its primary election. Last month Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger delayed the presidential primary until May 19, combining it with the regularly scheduled general primary, but now the election is moving to June 9.
Stephen Fowler: The coronavirus pandemic upended life as we knew it, forcing businesses to close, schools online, and sending elections officials like Lee County’s Veronica Johnson scrambling to make in-person voting safe.
Veronica Johnson: I'll be honest, it is getting a little scary. You know, at first it's, you know, you go with the flow and do what you're told, social distancing as much as you can and hand washing and all of that. But after a while, it really starts to get to you.
Stephen Fowler: I talked to her in April, when her southwest Georgia County was in the middle of a COVID-19 outbreak that is to this day one of the worst in the country. Her daughter is a nurse at the main hospital in Albany. And trying to figure out how to bring people into close quarters to cast their vote and how to keep elderly poll workers safe was exhausting.
Veronica Johnson: This is very unprecedented and I can’t — I've been doing this 20 years and I can't wrap my head around everything that needs to be done right now.
Stephen Fowler: But one thing helped: Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger took another unprecedented step of mailing absentee ballot applications to 6.9 million active voters. Flexibility is one of the few things Bacon County election supervisor Anne Russell has been able to count on this year because of COVID-19. Like everywhere else in the state, Bacon County was also overwhelmed by absentee ballots. For the 2016 presidential election, Russell counted 175 absentee-by-mail votes.
Anne Russell: Back in June we counted I think almost 1,300 absentee ballots. So we had to reinvent the wheel when it comes to our absentee ballots here in Bacon County. And I know every other county has had to do that as well.
Stephen Fowler: As you heard from Bacon County supervisor, Georgians typically don’t vote by mail in large numbers. While that cut down on the potential number of voters at the polls, it created new problems as mountains of paperwork came in, like what Phyllis Wheeler had to deal with.
Phyllis Wheeler: We're a small county but we've just been overwhelmed by the number of ballots coming back. We've processed already over 3,500 because in 2018 we only had 800.
Stephen Fowler: She’s in McDuffie County outside Augusta in east Georgia, where processing thousands of ballots for the June primary was crippled after two staffers tested positive for COVID-19 on the second day of early voting for the primary.
Phyllis Wheeler: I'm gonna do the best I can... I started doing this here in ‘91 here in McDuffie County, and I've never let them down. And I think they know that I'm going to do what I can do as best I can do it, and I'm going to keep this office rolling.
Stephen Fowler: Later that week, the only early voting site in Appling County was closed for several days after one of 28 voters that showed up tested positive for the virus as well. And in Fulton County, Georgia’s largest, an election worker died from the coronavirus, halting election operations for days and making a large backlog even larger. Throughout the early months of 2020, local elections officials had warned of three main issues: a shortage of trained poll workers, longer lines because of fewer voting machines, and fewer polling places open because of the virus. Even with those repeated warnings, voters — and the national media were not prepared for what happened on June 9.
Stephen Colbert: Yesterday, it was a mess in the Georgia primary… what happened, why was it such a cluster munch?
Stephen Fowler: In the weeks leading up to Election Day, 80 polling places closed in the greater metro Atlanta area, and one in 10 statewide moved somewhere else. The symbol of these changes and these problems emerged in Fulton County. A midtown Atlanta church was unavailable, so the two precincts that voted there moved to a midtown high school, which already had three other precincts cast their ballots there. But right before the election, school officials told Fulton County they would be unavailable as well, which is how we got 16,000 active voters being assigned to Park Tavern, normally known as an idyllic restaurant and event space tucked into the corner of Atlanta’s premier park. While not all 16,000 voters showed up on Election Day, more people meant longer lines. In fact, more than 300 were waiting to vote before the polls even opened. Elsewhere on Election Day, things were not going great. A DeKalb County poll had only 4 out of 12 poll workers show up. Then the machines weren’t working and the icing on the cake: They ran out of backup paper ballots after just 20 voters, leaving many residents like 80-year-old Anita Heard in line for hours.
Anita Heard: I’m frustrated and crying because America has gotten to the point that we are now taking the liberties of people, even voting, from them. How can we do this? We’re supposed to be the best, and we have proven ourselves at this time to be worse than any country alive.
Stephen Fowler: About 10 percent of Gwinnett’s polling places did not have machines when voting started after a botched delivery plan. Bibb County voters were given incorrect paper ballots when machines stopped working, and in many predominantly Black communities, voting took longer. Before the end of the day, dueling press releases were flinging blame at the state and the counties, and the first statewide test of Georgia’s new voting machines was declared a disaster.
Stacey Abrams: Well what we’re seeing here is the failure to fix things when the opportunity was given. This was a — sort of a — confluence of a bunch of different problems.
Stephen Fowler: Except… Most counties had very little issues, and the secretary of state’s office honed in on Fulton County as the main culprit of voting woes. Standing outside Park Tavern, flanked by posters with more than a decade’s worth of Fulton election problems, the state’s top election official asked lawmakers to allow his office to more directly intervene in how counties run elections.
Brad Raffensperger: From our data from Election Day so far, approximately 70% of all the issues in the state were in Fulton County. Fulton County’s issues are now conflated with Georgia’s elections overall, in spite of the Georgia election officials and workers who have worked their fingers to the bone to bring us a successful election.
Stephen Fowler: He also called for a new plan to make November better for all voters, including more tech support in every polling place, better training for newer, younger poll workers and more polling places. But, most importantly, Georgia officials want you to vote before Election Day.
Brad Raffensperger: Historically in the general election, we see about 50% of voters vote ahead of the election day, 50% vote on Election Day — we need to bump that number up. Imagine what Tuesday would have looked like had we not had the absentee ballot program.
Stephen Fowler: A few weeks later, Fulton County got a big boost, when the Atlanta Hawks announced their giant arena — empty because of an NBA season played at Disney World — would be the state’s largest-ever early voting site.
Atlanta Hawks Spokesperson: We aim to be a community asset, and in order to fulfill that goal, we need to be more than just a basketball team. We'll utilize our arena for all aspects of voting.
Stephen Fowler: Atlanta’s public transit system re-opened a station below the arena, parking decks were made free, and Hawks staff were trained as poll workers to operate 100 voting machines. While turnout was down in a runoff race, thousands of people used the arena with little issue. And the State election board also took steps to improve voting before November. They approved one rule that allows county workers to begin processing absentee ballots starting two weeks before Election Day — meaning they can do everything but tabulate the results before polls closed. Also, while Raffensperger decided not to mail out absentee ballot applications to millions of voters again, Georgia did launch an easier to request a mail-in absentee ballot.
Newscast: Starting next week, rather than having to fill out an absentee ballot application and mailing or emailing it back, Georgia voters can now apply online. Now let’s walk through the absentee voting process.
Stephen Fowler: Fill out your name, date of birth, county and drivers license or voter ID number and a couple minutes later, you’re done. More than 1.2 million Geogrians have requested an absentee ballot so far, and nearly a quarter million have been through that online portal. As those ballots go out in the mail, the November 2020 election is officially underway, but not without controversy. On September 8th, Secretary of State Raffensperger announced the beginnings of an investigation into allegations of double voting in the primary. For now, there’s no evidence that those voters did so intentionally, or that both votes counted, but the message from him was clear.
Brad Raffensperger: Let me reiterate this: Every double voter will be investigated thoroughly. A double voter knows exactly what they're doing, diluting the votes of each and every voter that follows the law. Those that make the choice to game the system are breaking the law. And, as secretary of state, I will not tolerate it.
Stephen Fowler: This came on the heels of President Trump encouraging his supporters to vote twice in North Carolina, and a slew of misinformation about the absentee voting process, and many headlines about the state’s announcement didn’t help matters. Still, many election observers feel that preparations for November are going smoother than expected, like former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.
Stacey Abrams: I am cautiously optimistic that the pledge made by the secretary of state that he would actually do his job this time, that he would make certain there are technicians to mend the machines, that he will ensure that absentee ballots actually get sent out, that he will help our counties do their jobs, which is his job. That he will actually do the job of resourcing our local officials and supporting their efforts. He pledged that he would do so at his press conference a few months ago and my hope is that he will follow through.
Stephen Fowler: Counties have recruited thousands of new poll workers to overstaff the polls, they’ve held more trainings to get people comfortable with a complex system, and in metro Atlanta, more polls are being added.
In Fulton County alone, officials approved more than 90 new places to vote since the primary, splitting up crowded sites but creating a new challenge as people might not know where to go. And now we watch and wait to see how the changes and turmoil of the last two years will be remembered in the history books and where the next fights will be on Georgia’s voting rights battleground. I'm Stephen Fowler. This is Battleground: Ballot Box, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show at GPB.org/Battle-Ground, or anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Our editor is Wayne Drash. Our intern is Eva Rothenberg, our show is mixed by Jesse Nighswonger, and the Director of Podcasting is Sean Powers. Thanks for listening, and remember to vote.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg