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Voting problems surface as Americans go to the polls

Voting problems surface as Americans go to the polls

Number of calls to voting hotlines quickly outpaced those received in the last midterm election of 2014
Voting problems surface as Americans go to the polls
Voters wait in line to cast ballots in a polling station on Election Day in Duluth, Gwinnett County, Ga., Nov. 6, 2018.
Photographer: Audra Melton/The New York Times

From closed polling sites to malfunctioning machines, Election Day brought frustration for some voters in a contest shadowed by questions about the security and fairness of the electoral system.

In Gwinnett County, Georgia, four precincts — out of 156 — suffered prolonged technical delays, while some voting machines in South Carolina lacked power or devices needed to activate them.

There was also confusion in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh, where at least four polling places were changed in the past two days.

And in Chandler, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb, voters who went to a polling place in the Gila precinct found the doors locked and a legal notice stating that the building had been closed overnight for failure to pay rent. (Officials later reopened the location.)

Problems with casting ballots are a regular feature of Election Day, and making sense of the number of problems reported will take days and weeks. But the number of calls to voting hotlines maintained by a collection of advocacy groups quickly outpaced those received in the last midterm election of 2014.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit that oversees 20 election call centers, said that as of noon Tuesday, it had received close to 12,000 phone calls, more than double the volume four years ago.

Four states — Georgia, Florida, Texas and Arizona — stood out by early afternoon as particularly problematic, said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee.

In Georgia, the state’s elections system had already been a highly contentious issue during the campaign between Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor, and Brian Kemp, her Republican opponent, who is also the secretary of state and thus the state’s chief elections administrator.

Abrams has accused Kemp and his allies of trying to suppress the vote through overzealous interpretations of state laws and procedures. Kemp has argued that he is simply trying to make it “hard to cheat,” and he has called allegations of voter suppression a “farce.”

Although there were long lines at some polling places, other Georgia voters moved in and out with ease, casting their ballots during stops that lasted maybe 15 minutes.

Kemp said Tuesday afternoon, “It’s been very smooth all day long,” adding: “We’re getting the normal questions of people calling asking where do they go vote, are they registered. Nothing unusual at all.”

But some Georgia voters had a much different experience.

At Annistown Elementary School in Snellville, Georgia, in Gwinnett County, voters reported standing in line for hours as poll workers tried to resolve a problem with the voting machines.

One voter, Ontaria Woods, said it took her nearly five hours to vote after arriving around 7 a.m., when the polls opened. After about 30 to 45 minutes, poll workers alerted those standing in line to an issue with the ExpressPoll voting machines, she said. Technicians arrived, but they could not sort out the problem, either.

“People were not surprised,” she said. “Of course, the term ‘voter suppression’ was used many, many times.”

Several voters declined provisional ballots after worrying that they would not be counted until after Election Day, she said. As the morning wore on, some people gave up and some left to buy food and water from a Walmart.

The machines were finally fixed around 11 a.m., Woods said. She cast her ballot about 45 minutes later and then headed to work — hours late for her job.

Gwinnett, a rapidly diversifying patchwork of suburbs near Atlanta, has long been a Republican stronghold, but Hillary Clinton carried the county in 2016. Just more than half of the county’s residents are white, and about a fifth are Hispanic or Latino.

Joe Sorenson, a spokesman for the county government, said the four problematic precincts reported issues with the system that creates voter access cards for Georgia’s electronic polling system. At the three where problems lingered at midmorning, people were being allowed to cast paper ballots. At the county’s request, a judge extended polling at one location.

“We’ve got people who are voting with the paper ballots, and we’ve got people who are standing to wait for the machines to be fixed, and we’ve got people who said they are planning to come back,” Sorenson said.

Although county elections officials appeared at fault for some of the issues in Georgia, a spokeswoman for Abrams’ campaign, Abigail Collazo, blamed Kemp for the day’s troubles.

“We’re incredibly inspired by how many Georgians are turning out to vote and are staying in line to cast their ballot, despite the fact that some polling locations were not properly prepared by the secretary of state’s office,” she said in a text message.

In Arizona, voting-rights monitors reported major delays at some polling places because of problems with printing ballots. Early reports suggested that the problems were centered in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, where a shift from local polling places to regional voting centers caused chaos during the 2016 election.

Voters at the regional centers were being turned away or forced to wait for long periods after printers that produce ballots tailored to their home precincts malfunctioned, according to Common Cause.

Clarke said the Maricopa County problems were “among the most significant we’ve seen today” and involved unusually large numbers of minority voters. The printer problems appear to affect nine voting centers in the county, she said.

In four of them, registered minorities — Latinos, African-Americans and Native Americans — outnumbered white voters by roughly 15,700 to 2,800. Clarke said the committee was investigating options for remedying the problem, including a call to extend voting hours at the sites.

In South Carolina, a spokesman for the State Election Commission said problems with malfunctioning voting machines were far from pervasive and quickly addressed.

“These issues were attributable to human error in preparation of the system, and in most cases, were resolved earlier this morning,” the spokesman, Chris Whitmire, said in an email. “We expect these types of isolated issues in any statewide election.”

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