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Georgia's pandemic primary was a disaster. Experts fear the state is still vulnerable to a repeat.

On the morning of June 9, Chantel Mullen arrived at Parkside Elementary School in Atlanta, ready to cast her vote in Georgia's primary election.

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Drew Kann
CNN — On the morning of June 9, Chantel Mullen arrived at Parkside Elementary School in Atlanta, ready to cast her vote in Georgia's primary election.

It was not what she had planned.

It was the final day to vote. To avoid crowds and the coronavirus, Mullen had tried to mail in a ballot. But after she made several attempts to contact Fulton County officials and even the secretary of state's office to correct a discrepancy with her mailing address, her ballot never arrived.

When she pulled up to her precinct at 6:40 a.m., just a few miles southeast of downtown, a long line of voters already stretched around the block.

The doors opened at 7 a.m., but 30 minutes passed, then an hour, then two hours. Still, the line had barely moved. After nearly four hours in the Atlanta heat and off-and-on rain, Mullen was finally able to cast her ballot -- "just tired and worn out."

"And as bad as I felt, I felt more so for other people," Mullen says now.

Indeed, the situation faced by many voters was far worse -- particularly in the Atlanta area. Voters faced eight-hour lines. Hundreds of voters in Fulton County never received absentee ballots they had requested. And polling places in 18 counties -- including many outside metro Atlanta -- were forced to stay open late to accommodate everyone who was already waiting when polls closed.

As the Covid-19 pandemic exploded in the US, dozens of states held primary elections. Perhaps none went as badly awry as the June 9 vote in Georgia -- and the long lines that appeared again in the first days of early voting for the general election this week were a sign that history might be repeating.

Voting rights have long been an issue in Georgia, and now demographic changes have turned it into a battleground state. A competitive presidential race and two Senate races that could determine the chamber's balance of power have placed the state's election infrastructure squarely under the microscope.

The problems in the primary have only fed distrust and anger over barriers to voting that still exist in Georgia. And with the secretary of state's office saying it expects heavy turnout again on November 3, plus a new voting system in use statewide, some fear Georgia is at risk of another election meltdown.

Finger-pointing gives way to some fixes

In the aftermath of the June 9 debacle, there was no shortage of finger-pointing.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger blamed the counties, which are in charge of the nuts and bolts of putting on elections. Fulton County elections officials said they felt overwhelmed by the turnout and an unprecedented onslaught of absentee ballots.

All pointed to a perfect storm of events triggered by Covid-19.

Polling precincts and poll workers backed out due to concerns over the virus. Fulton County lost around a quarter of its polling places, and roughly 6 out of every 7 of its poll workers, according to Rick Barron, the county's elections director.

And with in-person training for poll workers suspended, the ones who remained had little experience with the new voting machines that the state purchased in 2019, he said.

"We weren't able to train any poll workers in person with a brand-new voting system before the June election," said Barron. "That was a huge issue."

In the months since, the secretary of state's office and the counties have worked to ramp up capacity to process absentee ballot applications and push voters to utilize early voting sites. In Fulton County, the goal is to get 80% of the county's registered voters to vote absentee or in early voting before November 3, in the hopes that they can ward off another overwhelming Election Day crush at the polls.

On Election Day, Fulton County will have 255 polling precincts open, a big jump from the 164 sites that were open on June 9. And the county says it has received more than 6,000 applications from prospective poll workers, with 3,000 hired so far to work on November 3.

Though Fulton County has seen its share of early voting lines -- plus a technical glitch that briefly halted voter check-in at its massive State Farm Arena site -- neighboring Gwinnett County has experienced some of the state's longest wait times so far.

On the first day of early voting, the county saw waits as long as eight hours at one location and six hours at several more, according to Gwinnett County communications director Joe Sorensen.

Long lines in early voting aren't the same as on Election Day. Since voters can choose to vote at any location in the county where they're registered in early voting, large numbers converging on one site can create long lines, unlike on Election Day, where voters are spaced out and can vote only at their assigned precincts.

However, the secretary of state's office said the sluggish performance of an online system used to pull up and verify voters' registration information was also contributing to some of the long lines seen around the state.

At a news conference Wednesday, Raffensperger said his office was working with the vendor to increase the system's bandwidth so that it can handle the huge number of voters ​expected for the remainder of this cycle.

By Thursday morning, Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said she had spoken with several counties and so far the fix seems to have worked.

Still, there are other concerns about the state's complex new voting system.

Georgia election law requires that it is up to the individual counties to run their own elections, a point Secretary of State Raffensperger's office has made frequently in the wake of June's election debacle.

But what the counties do not have control over are the machines voters will be using to cast their ballots.

The arrival of BMDs

Those machines -- called ballot marking devices (BMDs) -- were purchased by the state in 2019 for more than $100 million from Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems.

Though other states and counties use BMDs, Georgia is the only state that uses the Dominion systems statewide, according to the nonpartisan election technology tracking organization Verified Voting.

The machines feature large touch screens, which voters tap to mark their ballots. Once a voter's choices have been made, the completed ballot is printed out with a QR code that is encoded with the choices, which is finally fed through a scanner to record the votes.

That system of touch screens, printers and scanners was the subject of a sprawling lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Georgia in which plaintiffs claimed that the BMDs are insecure and prone to technical malfunctions and do not allow voters to visually verify that the BMD has in fact marked their ballots as they intended.

On the eve of the beginning of early voting, Judge Amy Totenberg denied the plaintiffs' request to switch the entire state from using BMDs to hard-marked paper ballots, ruling that a change of that magnitude so close to the start of voting risked throwing the election into chaos.

Still, Totenburg's ruling contained harsh words about the reliability and security of Georgia's BMD system.

In conclusion, Totenberg wrote, "Plaintiffs' challenge to the State of Georgia's new ballot marking device QR barcode-based computer voting system and its scanner and associated software presents serious system security vulnerability and operational issues that may place Plaintiffs and other voters at risk of deprivation of their fundamental right to cast an effective vote that is accurately counted."

In response to the judge's ruling, Fuchs said, "Activists should not decide policy through a legal forum and no one should let them. And there is already a process in place through the General Assembly to allow the public activists and our representatives to decide policy related to elections."

Fuchs also says that as record numbers of Georgians have descended on the polls in the first week of early voting, no equipment malfunctions have been reported to her office so far, other than one printer that was jamming.

In response to emailed questions about the reliability of the state's BMDs, Dominion Vice President for Government Affairs Kay Stimson said, "Implementing a new, statewide voting system across all of Georgia's 159 counties in a major presidential election year would have been challenging even without the Covid-19 pandemic, which has disrupted training efforts and left some counties with significant poll worker shortages. "

Stimson added that Dominion is recruiting and training 3,000 service technicians to deploy across Georgia should issues arise on November 3.

But election administration experts have concerns that the state's counties do not have adequate backup plans for a worst-case scenario on Election Day -- i.e., a widespread voting machine outage.

Georgia election rules require that precincts keep enough paper ballots on hand for 10% of the voters assigned to each location, so that in the event of a technical malfunction, voters can still cast ballots while problems are addressed.

Fulton County's Rick Barron said it will go above the 10% requirement and will stock enough paper ballots for 20% of voters on Election Day.

However, an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice -- a nonpartisan law and policy institute -- found that even that would not be enough should a major outage occur during peak voting hours.

"That's my biggest concern by far: Is there an adequate backup plan?" said Larry Norden, the director of the Brennan Center's Election Reform Program. "I do think that Georgia has been doing a lot of things to improve from the debacle of the primaries -- particularly the Atlanta-area counties -- but I don't think they've done enough to be ready for this fall."

A new battleground state

Georgia has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992. But recent election results have shown that the state is no longer the deep shade of red it once was.

In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just over 211,000 votes in Georgia, but Trump's margin of victory was more than 97,000 votes tighter than Mitt Romney's over Barack Obama four years earlier.

Then came 2018's competitive and contentious gubernatorial race.

Stacey Abrams, who was vying to become the country's first Black female governor, lost to Brian Kemp by just 1.4 percentage points.

At the time, Kemp was Georgia's secretary of state, and the state's top elections official overseeing an election in which he was a candidate drew outrage from Abrams and her allies.

Abrams' camp claimed that Kemp's actions and policies -- like voter roll purges and so-called "exact match," which put thousands of voter registration applications in limbo if they did not exactly mirror state databases -- were aimed at deliberately suppressing minority votes, an accusation that Kemp has denied.

"It's not until you get into a really close election that all of those things come into sharp relief, because they start to impact the margin of victory for candidates," said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the former campaign manager for Stacey Abrams, who is now the CEO of Fair Fight, the voting rights organization that Abrams founded.

Though Abrams ultimately ended her bid for governor, the race cemented Georgia as a focal point in the national battle over voting rights.

After that bitter fight, some said the epically long lines in the June primary and so far in early voting felt predictable -- just another example of the challenges voters face, especially those in predominately Black areas.

"If you live in my neighborhood ... it's not like this came as a shock, like 'Oh my goodness, we have to wait a long time,' " said Gayle B., a resident of southwest Atlanta in Fulton County who says she waited five and a half hours at an early voting location in the June primary. "Granted, five and half hours was extreme, but it is a part of how we live."

Trump's Twitter attacks on mail-in ballots and Fulton County's issues in June with processing absentee ballots are also influencing voter decisions about how they cast their ballots.

Rosemary Blankson was one of hundreds of voters who lined up before the polls opened Monday outside State Farm Arena -- the largest polling place in the state, with 300 voting machines -- for the first day of early voting.

She said she had voted absentee in the June primary, but then had never received a ballot she requested for a later special election.

And despite her preexisting conditions and the ongoing pandemic, she said the fear of not receiving her ballot in time outweighed her concerns over the coronavirus.

"I cannot let them not sending me my ballot stop me from voting," Blankson said. "So my mind was made up this time around, and I was like, 'I'm just going to go down the first day of early voting and just get it done.' "

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