ATLANTA — Before Georgia’s embattled election officials can fix a voting system that suffered a spectacular collapse, leading to absentee ballots that never got delivered and hourslong waits at polling sites on Tuesday, they must first figure out who is responsible.
As multiple investigations begin into what went wrong, and as Democrats accuse the state’s Republicans of voter suppression, a picture emerged Wednesday of a systematic breakdown that both revealed general incompetence and highlighted some of the thorny and specific challenges that the coronavirus pandemic may pose to elections officials nationwide.
As it seeks answers, Georgia is being roiled by a politically volatile debate over whether the problems were the result of mere bungling, or an intentional effort by Republican officials to inhibit voting.
Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, placed the blame on greater Atlanta’s liberal-leaning counties of Fulton and DeKalb, arguing that local officials had botched the rollout of the state’s new $107 million electronic voting system.
But Democrats, who blame Mr. Raffensperger, saw more nefarious forces at play, noting that many of the longest lines plagued predominantly black neighborhoods in and around Atlanta while rural white counties experienced relatively fewer problems.
While Tuesday’s contests were relatively low-stakes primaries, Georgia is expected to be a presidential battleground in November, as well as the site of two contested Senate races that could determine control of the chamber.
“What happened in Georgia yesterday was by design,” Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “Voter suppression is a threat to our democracy.”
The debate over how to fix Georgia’s troubled system, and who is to blame for the trouble, is likely to resonate far beyond the state as the nation prepares for contentious November elections that will play out on a landscape transformed by the presence of the coronavirus.
The pandemic has placed more emphasis than ever on voting by mail in states like Georgia. But the burden of increasing absentee balloting while also operating in-person voting sites that adhere to safety precautions is proving to be a cumbersome process marked by confused voters and exhausted and underfunded administrators.
“What we were asked to do is do absentee by mail, and we still had to do our full complement of Election Day infrastructure,” Richard Barron, the weary-looking Fulton County elections administrator, said during a Tuesday night news conference held over Zoom. “We did our early-voting infrastructure and it stretched us.”
Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, who writes frequently about America’s voting problems, said Georgia’s meltdown resulted from a failure to anticipate predictable problems.
There is ample proof, he said, that state officials have not acted to address the problems that have made it difficult to vote there.
“If you go back and look at the lawsuits brought for years against Georgia’s voting system, the state has repeatedly denied that it has a problem and dragged its feet on election reform,” he said.
Dr. Hasen said that other states may see similar election system breakdowns in November, given the large number of people who will want to vote absentee, and the expensive and complex demands the virus has placed on in-person voting sites. He noted that problems have already plagued recent elections in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Georgia’s voters had low expectations, and Tuesday’s primary did not meet them. In many parts of greater Atlanta, voters brought their own lawn chairs to the polls, expecting long lines and not wanting to stand in the heat.
Fulton County pushed its poll closing time from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., but some voters in Union City, a suburb south of Atlanta that is 88 percent black, waited in line until 12:37 a.m. to vote.
“As a black person I was actually sad. I was thinking to myself, ‘How long do we have to be going through this?’” said LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, who documented the Union City voting line on Twitter. “This is supposed to be a new system but we continue to see old problems.”
Much of the trouble that plunged Georgia’s voting system into chaos Tuesday was specific to the state, stemming from the rollout of new voting machines and an electronic voter check-in system, which some elections experts had been sounding alarm bells about for months.
Poll workers proved to be tragically unfamiliar with the system. And a number of the most seasoned poll workers in the Atlanta area, many of whom are older, chose to sit the election out to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.
At the same time, the state had encouraged more voters to avoid in-person voting altogether and vote using absentee ballots. With Covid-19 concerns in mind, elections officials sent an absentee ballot application to every eligible voter in the state in “active” status — meaning they had voted in the past several years.
But a number of voters who filled out those applications never received a ballot. Some of them spoke Tuesday night at a Zoom meeting of the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections, saying that they ended up having to vote in person after their ballots didn’t show up.
Mr. Raffensperger said he would begin an investigation into why Fulton and DeKalb counties were riddled with problems that left voters waiting in line for hours.
“We really need to do a management review,” Mr. Raffensperger said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. He said voters “really weren’t aware” of the hurdles state and local elections officials faced in conducting an election in the coronavirus era.
The Georgia House speaker, David Ralston, a Republican, announced that an investigation of “irregularities” in the Tuesday election would be headed up by a fellow Republican state representative, Shaw Blackmon, the head of a governmental affairs committee. The probe will look at problems “across Georgia,” Mr. Ralston’s office said in a statement, “particularly in Fulton County.”
“The legislative branch of government has an obligation to go beyond the mutual finger-pointing and get to the truth and the real reasons underlying these frustrations and concerns,” Mr. Ralston said.
Fair Fight Action, the voting rights organization started by Stacey Abrams, is considering more lawsuits on top of the one it has pending against the secretary of state’s office after the disputed 2018 governor’s race that Ms. Abrams lost to Gov. Brian Kemp. And a number of Georgia Democrats and voting rights advocates have called for Mr. Raffensperger to resign.
Many said Mr. Raffensperger was required to ensure a smooth election, even if the counties ran individual polling locations.
“The Georgia law and the Georgia Constitution and statutory law is very clear that the buck stops with the secretary of state,” Sachin Varghese, the general counsel for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said Wednesday.
“He is the chief elections officer in Georgia and has ultimate responsibility for the conduct of elections,” Mr. Varghese said. “That responsibility includes making sure that counties have adequate training have adequate supplies and are prepared to run elections well. And he has failed to do so.”
Still, Georgia officials from both parties expressed hope that the state’s upcoming elections — there will be runoffs on July 21 before the general election in November — would not be as poorly run as Tuesday’s primary.
“I believe that folks can learn from their mistakes,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat. “I was in government for 26 years. You have to prioritize your spending and I can think of nothing that has a larger priority than running efficient elections and upholding our democracy.”
Georgia’s voting problems cascaded. The state had bought 30,000 new voting machines that were being used for the first time. Local officials were training hundreds of replacement poll workers as late as Monday night. Then, on Tuesday, a variety of breakdowns included blown fuses at polling locations — because the voting machines overloaded the electrical systems — and a lack of provisional ballots on hand.
“I don’t think anybody’s acting in bad faith — I really do think that this is the set of cards that we’re dealing with at the moment,” said former Representative Jack Kingston, a Republican from Savannah. “The tendency of politics is to point the finger, but I don’t think there’s anything nefarious going on.”
Georgia Democrats were already seizing on the narrative of potential voter suppression for fund-raising purposes.
The campaign of the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, a Democratic Senate candidate, sent an email to potential supporters that described Tuesday’s long lines and said that the Democrats would have to work “twice as hard” to “overcome G.O.P. voter suppression.” It asked for a donation of at least $5.
Carolyn Bourdeaux, a Democrat who advanced to a runoff for a House seat in Atlanta’s northeast suburbs, called on Mr. Raffensperger to resign hours before the polls closed.
Ms. Abrams, whose own absentee ballot arrived ruined, said the hurdles voters faced Tuesday were likely to make them lose confidence in the election process.
“The wonderful thing that’s being concealed by the disaster is that we have record turnout,” she said. “People want to be heard. They want to participate. And it is multigenerational and multiethnic, but that enthusiasm gets dampened when incompetence and malfeasance come together and ruin their ability to participate.”
Richard Fausset reported from Atlanta, and Reid J. Epstein from Washington.