At 6 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Anita Heard arrived at the polls to cast a vote in Georgia’s primary. Heard, an 80-year-old black woman, was the first person in line at her precinct—but nearly four hours later, she was still waiting to cast her ballot. The precinct, normally staffed by a dozen poll workers, had just four. Its voting machines had malfunctioned, and the precinct manager had no backup paper ballots. An ever-growing line formed behind Heard, snaking around the building as voters tried to social distance.
“What is going on in Georgia?” Heard asked Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Greg Bluestein, who was interviewing frustrated voters. “This is ridiculous,” she declared. “In the United States of America,” in 2020, “people can’t vote?”
As Heard spoke to Bluestein, thousands of voters in the Atlanta area were experiencing the same problem. The state experienced an election meltdown on Tuesday as scores of understaffed precincts scrambled to fix broken voting machines and procure paper ballots. Many residents had requested an absentee ballot but never received one, forcing them to join the monstrously long lines—or forgo their constitutional right to vote. There’s no direct evidence that state officials intended to create this chaos and suppress votes. But their breathtaking negligence had the same devastating effect: the subversion of free and fair elections, a cornerstone of any true democracy.
Georgia’s problems arise in part out of a botched effort to shore up its election security. Until this year, the state used voting machines called the Diebold AccuVote DRE, which ran on software developed in 2005. Cybersecurity experts discovered in 2006 that the software is dangerously insecure. Hackers could infect the computers with a virus that steals votes from one candidate and assigns them to another without detection. They could install malware that alters the vote count or prevent the machine from accepting votes. With access to just one voting machine, hackers could infect the entire system and manipulate every voting machine. They could also hack the machines remotely to steal votes.
Diebold eventually produced a security patch for its software, but previous Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, never implemented it. Instead, Kemp launched a massive voter purge that disproportionately affected Democratic areas. He also oversaw the closure of 214 precincts after the Supreme Court invalidated the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder. These mass poll closures disproportionately affected black communities. In 2018, Kemp was narrowly elected governor.
Alarmed by the possibility that hackers could easily change the outcome of an election without detection, a federal judge ordered the state to adopt a new system in 2019. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, responded by paying $106 million for new, ostensibly more secure voting machines. In this new system, poll workers must load each voter’s ballot onto an “access card,” which the voter then inserts into the machine. The ballot is supposed to appear on the touch screen. After the voter has selected their preferred candidates, they print their ballot, which contains a QR code, and feed it into a machine. In theory, then, there is a paper record of each vote.
There are two problems with these machines. First, they are not truly secure because hackers can manipulate the QR code and change the vote count. Second, many of them just don’t work. Raffensperger’s office immediately blamed poll workers for allegedly “not understanding setup or how to operate voting equipment.” Bluestein, however, spoke with multiple precinct managers who found that ballots simply failed to appear after voters inserted their “access card.” Some precincts had provisional paper ballots on hand, which are usually given to voters of uncertain eligibility and can work as backup in a pinch. But they ran out of these ballots quickly, since everyone assumed most voters would use the machines.
This equipment breakdown might not have been so catastrophic had the state conducted the election primarily by mail. And, under pressure from civil rights groups, Raffensperger did send an absentee ballot application to every registered voter in the state, encouraging them to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, told me on Tuesday that Raffensperger’s office also urged counties to use out-of-state processors located in Colorado and Arizona. These processors took weeks, even months, to send ballots across the country to Georgia, and a large number of voters had not received them by Election Day. As a result, many residents who tried to vote by mail were forced to go to the polls on Tuesday—only to discover that the state’s voting machines didn’t work either.
Raffensperger has accused county election boards of botching the “new voting system”; county officials, in turn, condemned Raffensperger for his “abdication of leadership.” It is true that some counties failed to allocate enough money for this election and to recruit a sufficient number of poll workers for each precinct after many backed out due to COVID-19. But it is Raffensperger’s job to ensure that Georgia’s 159 counties can operate voting equipment by providing them with the necessary training, resources, and personnel.
“The secretary of state is responsible for setting the standards and helping counties meet those standards,” Young said. “This is ultimately his responsibility.” Young pointed out that the ACLU of Georgia had exhorted Raffensperger to print enough paper ballots for every voter in case the machines malfunctioned; he refused. Raffensperger also touted the success of early voting—even as some voters failed to receive absentee ballots and others waited for longer than six hours to cast a ballot in person. “There were warnings,” Young noted. “Voting rights organizations have been sounding the alarm that Georgia was not ready for this election.”
These problems, though, are not limited to Georgia. Last week, the District of Columbia experienced a similar nightmare after a huge number of voters never got absentee ballots. Unlike Georgia, the district is run by Democrats who purport to believe deeply in protecting the right to vote. But neither jurisdiction is equipped to handle even a slight strain, and the new challenges posed by COVID-19 proved to be too much. Their experiences are a huge red flag indicating that other states need to start adapting their election operations now or risk a calamity in November, when the stakes are even higher. The gold standard remains universal vote by mail. But if election officials cannot get absentee ballots out quickly enough, they’ll need to open plenty of precincts stocked with enough paper ballots for every single voter.
When most people think of voter suppression, they probably envision overtly discriminatory laws, like Kemp’s crusade to shutter polls in black communities after Shelby County. But negligence, too, can result in voter suppression, in equally insidious ways. Free and fair elections are a baseline requirement of democracy, and if officials do not conduct them successfully, they might as well have thwarted them on purpose. “Incompetence,” as Young put it, “has the same result as intentionally depriving someone of their right to vote.”