Close race mag­ni­fies prob­lems at polls

No ev­i­dence emerged of sys­tem-wide ef­forts to deny vot­ers their say.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Alan Judd ajudd@ajc.com

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

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