The criticism has mounted among political experts over the turmoil caused by mail-in voting and the subsequent integrity of the 2020 presidential election and — and if Georgia’s disastrous primary on Tuesday were any preview, these growing concerns are very real.
The long-standing wrangle over voting rights and election security came to a head in the Peach State primary, where a messy primary and partisan finger-pointing offered an unsettling preview of a November contest when battleground states could face potentially record turnout.
Democrats blamed the Republican secretary of state for hourslong lines, voting machine malfunctions, provisional ballot shortages, and absentee ballots failing to arrive in time for Tuesday’s elections.
Georgia Republicans deflected responsibility to metro Atlanta’s heavily minority and Democratic-controlled counties, while President Donald Trump’s top campaign attorney decried “the chaos in Georgia.”
It raised the specter of a worst-case November scenario: a decisive state, like Florida and its “hanging chads” and “butterfly ballots” in 2000, remaining in dispute long after polls close. Meanwhile, Trump, Biden, and their supporters could offer competing claims of victory or question the election’s legitimacy, inflaming an already boiling electorate.
At Trump’s campaign headquarters, senior counsel Justin Clark blamed Georgia’s vote-by-mail push amid the COVID-19 pandemic, alluding to the president’s warnings that absentee voting yields widespread fraud.
“The American people want to know that the results of an election accurately reflect the will of the voters,” Clark said. “The only way to make sure that the American people will have faith in the results is if people who can, show up and vote in person.”
Rachana Desai Martin, a Biden campaign attorney, agreed that the scenes in Georgia are a “threat” to democracy. “We only have a few months left until voters around the nation head to the polls again, and efforts should begin immediately to ensure that every Georgian — and every American — is able to safely exercise their right to vote,” she said.
Some Democrats pointed the finger at President Donald Trump.
“Trump is already trying to extend this culture war by creating fear around vote-by-mail,” said Aneesa McMillan of the Priorities political action committee. She noted the Republican National Committee’s plans to recruit thousands of poll watchers, now that there is no court order banning the practice, is a controversial idea.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Brad Raffensperger, the state’s Republican secretary of state, laid blame elsewhere, noting state law gives counties control of all on-the-ground operation of elections.
“It’s really specifically in one or two counties, in Fulton and DeKalb counties, that had these issues today,” Raffensperger said. “It has nothing to do with what we’re doing in the rest of Georgia.”
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Raffensperger quickly promised investigations of Fulton’s and DeKalb’s handling of the primary. The Republican speaker of Georgia’s state legislature, meanwhile, called for an investigation of the entire primary process, singling out Fulton County as “particularly” troubling.
That kind of back-and-forth isn’t new.
The danger is that is could easily repeat in November in battleground states where Democrats control the most populous cities and counties: Broward County (Fort Lauderdale), Florida; Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan; Charlotte, North Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennslyvania; Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Fulton County, which includes most of Atlanta, has a history of slow vote tabulation. Its local elections chief, Richard Barron, called Tuesday a “learning experience” while alluding to the state’s role in the primary process.
The finger-pointing goes beyond details of the law. Raffensperger correctly noted that county officials train poll workers, including on the use of the new voting machines. But Raffensperger is the state’s chief elections official who decides how many machines to send to each county, and his office provides training curriculum for local officials.
On absentee ballots, he pushed unprecedented no-fault absentee access, paying to send an application to every Georgian on the active voter rolls. But no additional money was provided to hire staff to process the influx, which dwarfed the typical primary.
History suggests that both local and state officials, whether in Georgia or elsewhere, could find themselves in the national crosshairs if their election tallies leave the presidency in flux.
“I know that in these hyperpartisan times, half the people will be happy, and the other half will be sad,” Raffensperger said. “But we want to make sure that 100% of people know … the election was done fairly and we got the accurate count.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article