Georgia Primary Issues Highlight Urgent Need to Expand Voter Access, Ensure Emergency Election Preparedness

A woman in a face mask and gloves using a screen
Smyrna resident LaVonya Tensley uses a stylus pen while voting on the new electronic voting machines at the Smyrna Community Center during the Georgia primary elections, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Tensley wore gloves and a face mask to her voting precinct. Photo by Tribune Content Agency LLC/Alamy Live News.

By Kate Hamilton, a 2020 CLC Summer Intern

When Georgia voters went to the polls to cast their ballots in the state’s primary election, many encountered hurdles that reveal more systemic problems impacting America’s voting system.

The widespread instances of hourslong lines, malfunctioning voting machines and provisional ballot shortages – coupled with the State Election Board’s failure to process absentee requests – underscore the urgent need for Congress and all states to take action to ensure that the general election in November runs smoothly.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and partners sent a letter to Georgia officials on June 2 requesting prompt action to ensure fair, equitable, and efficient elections despite the challenges inherent to the pandemic. Nevertheless, the state cited the pandemic when deciding to close 80 polling places in the metro Atlanta area – which is home to the state’s largest minority communities – in the leadup to the June 2020 primary. 

These closures only exacerbated the racially disproportionate impact of actions Georgia had already taken in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to gut key protections of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County vs. Holder. Following that devastating holding, Georgia closed 214 polling places, most of which were located in counties with high rates of poverty and significant African American populations.

Yesterday’s unacceptable display should be an alarming wake-up call for policymakers in Congress and the states. The problems we saw in Georgia’s primary foreshadow significant challenges across the country in November at a time where coronavirus threatens to create a shortage of poll workers.

In order to ensure a fair, equitable, and safe general election, policymakers and state election administrators alike must provide safe and robust vote-by-mail operations. They must also expand early voting options and provide safe election day in-person voting options with enough poll workers to assist elderly voters and people with disabilities.

Congress must immediately allocate at least $4 billion in funding to state and local governments to ensure that they have adequate resources to hold safe and fair elections this November. In previous coronavirus response packages, Congress has only provided a total of $400 million to states for election assistance. While a step in the right direction, this is only a down payment.

It will defray only a fraction of the costs associated with implementing the necessary adjustments to safeguard the electoral process. This additional funding must be provided now so that election officials can begin making the necessary preparations.

In turn, states must expand vote-by-mail programs so that most Americans can vote from the safety of their own homes, avoiding dangerously crowded lines like the ones in Georgia’s primary.

To that end, all voters should have the option to request an absentee ballot that can be returned by mail or dropped off at a secure location. In an election year dominated by a viral pandemic, voters should not need an excuse to exercise that option.

Voting by mail must be a reliable and accessible option to all voters, and in the event of a technical error, voters must be able to fix the error without having to travel to a government office.

Finally, even as states bolster options to vote by mail and vote early, they must ensure that all voters have access to in-person voting options on Election Day. As the Georgia primary illustrates, many voters rely on in-person, Election Day voting – especially voters of color.

States can prepare now to ensure safe and equitable in-person voting by recruiting a larger number of poll workers.

Ensuring that there are adequate and safe polling locations – equitably distributed across communities – and confirming that those locations are equitably and properly resourced with adequate machines and staff will minimize wait times, shorten lines, and minimize the risk for both voters and poll workers.

States should also expand their early-voting programs, so that voters who choose to vote in-person can do so safely. Spreading out in-person voting across many days – including at least one weekend – allows polling locations to space out voters and avoid long lines and packed polling locations.

By drawing these lessons from the shortcomings in Georgia’s primary, we can ensure that voters never again have to choose between public health and a functioning democracy.