STEVE PEOPLES, BEN NADLER and SUDHIN THANAWALA
ATLANTA (AP) — Voters waited as long as five hours to cast ballots in some Georgia precincts on Tuesday amid reports of voting machine malfunctions and high turnout in a state that President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden are expected to hotly contest in the fall.
The state's chief elections officer, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, announced plans to investigate voting problems that plagued Fulton and Dekalb counties, where roughly half the population is black.
Widespread problems included trouble with Georgia's new voting system that combines touchscreens with scanned paper ballots in races for president, U.S. Senate and dozens of other contests. Some voters said they joined the lines after requesting mail-in ballots that never arrived. One state lawmaker, Democratic Rep. William Boddie of Atlanta, said there was a "complete meltdown."
Americans were also voting Tuesday in primaries in West Virginia, Nevada and South Carolina following months of social restrictions to guard against the spread of COVID-19 and a week of massive protests against police brutality that energized the black community and its white allies. In North Dakota, officials will tabulate results Tuesday from an election conducted exclusively by mail.
The tumult in Georgia garnered much of the attention and served as a test of how to conduct elections in the era of coronavirus. The pandemic kept some poll workers at home, forced the consolidation of some voting precincts and prompted a sometimes confusing shift to absentee ballots. Some voters said they were determined to participate in the democratic process after the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing demonstrations that swept cities across the nation, including Atlanta.
Benaiah Shaw, who joined the protests against police brutality after Floyd's death, said he votes in every election but had never waited as long as he did on Tuesday — five hours.
"It's really disheartening to see a line like this in an area with predominantly black residents," said Shaw, a 25-year-old African American. He said he was appalled by how few voting machines were available.
Voters were also forced to wait hours to cast ballots in recent primary contests across Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. While there were no reports of machine malfunctions in other states, the number of voting places was dramatically reduced in virtually every state that has held in-person voting in recent weeks to accommodate a drop in poll workers.
The consolidation has disproportionately affected urban minority communities, although long lines were reported on Tuesday in whiter suburban areas as well.
Even before Georgia voters ran into problems Tuesday, Raffensperger warned that results may be slow to come in as poll closures and virus restrictions complicate in-person voting and counties process a huge increase in ballots received by mail.
Outside a recreation center being used as a polling site in Atlanta, some voters said they had been waiting for nearly four hours in a line that wrapped around the block. At another site off Atlanta's Piedmont Park, several people walked up, looked at the line wrapped around the parking lot and then left, shaking their heads in frustration.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said voters in line at one of Atlanta's largest precincts reported all the machines were down. She encouraged voters not to give up.
"If you are in line, PLEASE do not allow your vote to be suppressed," the mayor tweeted.
The problems weren't just limited to the Atlanta area. In Savannah, Mayor Van Johnson said he was "inundated" with phone calls Tuesday morning from voters reporting "extensive delays." Election officials in surrounding Chatham County were requesting an extension of voting hours.
Gabriel Sterling, who managed the rollout of Georgia's new $120 million voting system, said he had heard of no "actual equipment issues" but rather of delayed deliveries of voting equipment and problems with polls workers "not understanding setup or how to operate voting equipment."
Sterling blamed "counties engaging in poor planning, limited training, and failures of leadership."
Since the pandemic began, states have been scrambling to address concerns of voting in person. The nation's elections rely on poll workers, many of them older, and neighborhood locations such as schools, recreation centers and senior living communities for polling places.
Many states, including Georgia, have pushed to expand the use of absentee ballots in the hopes of reducing the number of people voting in person. For the first time, Georgia sent absentee ballot applications to all active registered voters, although many reported on Tuesday that they never received them.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said Tuesday that he wasn't surprised that Georgia had voting problems given that the state's elections chief is a Republican. He noted that GOP Gov. Brian Kemp faced allegations of suppressing votes when he oversaw the 2018 elections as secretary of state.
"Republicans want to ensure that it is as hard as possible for people to vote," Perez said in an interview.
Georgia has emerged as a general election battleground state in the contest between Trump and Biden.
Biden, in particular, hoped to emerge as the prime beneficiary of energy from the African American community and its white allies, who have held massive protests for more than a week.
The former vice president's path to the presidency was already focused on maximizing black turnout and expanding his alliance with white suburbanites and city dwellers, young voters, Asian Americans and Latinos. Trump, meanwhile, hoped to demonstrate strength among his base of white voters in small towns while holding his own in metro areas.
While there was no real competition for each of the presidential candidates on Tuesday, Georgia is a must-win for the Republican president in November.
A nearly four-hour ordeal outside an Atlanta polling site shook Ross Wakefield's confidence in the upcoming elections and people's ability to participate.
"It doesn't give me a lot of confidence in the future," said Wakefield, a 28-year-old white software engineer. "Personally, I feel like we're struggling as a country right now to hear people who really need to be heard, and this does not give me a lot of confidence that we're doing that."
Peoples reported from Montclair, N.J. Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.