Close race magnifies problems at polls
No evidence emerged of system-wide efforts to deny voters their say.
A p oll worker in Atlanta hoarded the last of his precinct’s provisional ballots, doling them out to select voters while turning others away.
Cobb County wouldn’t let a new resident cast a ballot even though both her driver’s license and her voter registration card displayed her new address.
Fulton County still can’t verify that it received an Atlanta woman’s ballot in October. When the woman asked an election official over the telephone whether her vote had counted, she said the official “just kind of snorted.”
Such irregularities appear to have occurred across Georgia in this week’s election for governor and other statewide offices, according to interviews by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with voters, campaign operatives and election officials.
However, no evidence emerged of systematic malfeasance — or of enough tainted votes to force a runoff election between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams.
The race remained too close to call Friday, three days after voting concluded. In unofficial returns, Kemp led with 50.3 percent of the vote. He had just 13,000 votes to spare to win outright without a runoff.
As county and state election officials prepared to certify the results early next week, Abrams’ campaign spent Friday trying to ensure that provisional ballots cast by voters whose eligibility was questioned on Election Day are recorded. Voters filed into voter
registration offices with evidence of their identities, their addresses, their citizenship or other details that could prove their eligibility. Some were not successful. Spelman College freshmen Kennedy Hayes and Maya Barefield said they registered this fall – Hayes during a voter registration drive on the Atlanta campus, Barefield on a form she mailed to the Secretary of State’s office. But they had to cast provisional ballots on Election Day after poll workers couldn’t verify their registrations. The result was the same Friday at the Fulton County elections office. Both students, who had been eager to vote for Abrams, a Spelman alumna, left disappointed, their votes uncounted.
“It’s really disheartening,” Barefield said. “I’ve wanted to vote since I was 15 and first started getting interested in politics. And I wanted to vote for someone I really want to be governor. Knowing my vote isn’t going to help when it’s so close — it’s just sad.”
Fulton County accepted at least some votes from 2,166 of the more than 3,700 provisional ballots they reviewed Friday.
Fewer than 13,000 other ballots are pending in other metro Atlanta counties, and state officials estimated that 10,000 provisional ballots must be examined in smaller Georgia counties. While Abrams ran strongly in metro Atlanta, Kemp generally prevailed in rural areas. The math does not favor Abrams.
But she has refused to concede, even as Kemp declared victory and began planning the transition to a new administration. President Donald Trump stepped into the fray with a Friday morning post on Twitter: “(H)e won. It is time to move on.”
Abrams’ campaign said Friday that unknown numbers of Georgians were deterred from voting by long lines at polling places. In many locations, said Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager, voting machines malfunctioned, and voters had to cast provisional ballots on paper. Now, Groh-Wargo said, the Secretary of State’s office — the agency that Kemp headed until he resigned Thursday — is pressuring counties to certify returns before all of those ballots are counted.
“These suppressive tactics are reminiscent of the Old South,” Groh-Wargo said during a news conference. “Tactics that have been resurrected by Brian Kemp, who forced the state to allow him to oversee his own election and have him be the decider of who was the winner.”
She offered no evidence of such pressure.
Across the state, voters say they were turned away for specious reasons or had absentee ballots improperly rejected. Darryl Joachim of Gwinnett County said he failed to note his date of birth on the envelope for his absentee ballot — an omission that led officials to reject the ballot.
Glitches, human error and voter confusion are natural byproducts of all elections, said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a non-profit organization based in Washington. While systemic problems could emerge, he said, at first glance, Georgia’s Election Day miscues did not seem unusual.
“It’s consistent with a really high turnout election with a lot of passion on both sides,” Becker said Friday. “I didn’t see huge red flags.”
But, he added: “The perception can overtake reality.”
In interviews, many voters expressed skepticism about a turbulent election overseen by one of the candidates.
When Jobie Crawford, a Spelman sophomore, went to vote Tuesday afternoon, poll workers at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta could not verify her registration in a state database. She said she asked for a provisional ballot, but a poll worker had only two left. “How fair would it be to give you one when other people need them?” she said the worker told her.
Poll workers eventually confirmed Crawford’s registration and allowed her to cast a regular ballot. But they turned away as many as 25 others who needed provisional ballots, she said. She and her friends later returned to the polling place to encourage people to remain in line until more ballots arrived.
“I think they honestly were doing the best they could,” Crawford said of the poll workers. “But how many other people could that also have happened to?”
Grace Sotomayor was turned away from what she thought was her precinct in southeast Georgia’s Bryan County. She recently moved from Bryan County to Savannah, but didn’t update her voter registration. Her driver’s license, though, showed her new address, so Bryan County officials would not let her vote — even on a provisional ballot, because she appeared in not just the wrong precinct, but the wrong county.
By the time she got to Savannah, the polls had closed.
“I learned my lesson,” Sotomayor said. “But I do think there are a lot of ambiguities. I almost feel like it’s meant to be that way to deter people.”
Mary Gallegos thought she had done everything right when she moved from Fulton to Cobb County last year: she updated both her voter registration and her driver’s license. But when she went to vote at Kell High School on Tuesday, poll workers could not verify that she was registered in Cobb County.
She asked to speak to a supervisor, who in turn called his own superior. “No,” she said he told her, “you can’t have a provisional ballot.” Workers told her to try voting in her old precinct, in South Fulton — where she was no longer legally eligible.
“They kept saying they were sorry — that the cogs in the system are slow,” Gallegos said. “I don’t understand why I wasn’t even given the chance to cast my ballot.”
Even some who cast ballots weren’t sure they had counted.
Iris Schaer of Atlanta voted Oct. 16. But when she checked her ballot on the Secretary of State’s website, nothing appeared. A series of telephone calls led her to a county elections official who, she said, “snorted” when asked about the validity of Schaer’s vote. Another worker, Schaer said, told her that “it probably went through.”
By Friday night, the website still did not show the status of her ballot.
“I don’t know” whether it counted, she said. “That’s where I am, and I’ve accepted that. I can’t give any more time or energy to making sure.”
‘It’s consistent with a really high turnout election with a lot of passion on both sides. I didn’t see huge red flags.’ David Becker, Executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research