Georgia Primary Issues Sow Concerns About General Election Recent primaries have exposed an overtaxed voting system and raised questions about how much can be fixed by November.

Chaos In Primary Elections Raises Fears For November

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Some other news now - is this country ready to hold a general election in November amid a pandemic? Recent primaries revealed signs of trouble. Wisconsin voters had to wait in long lines despite the health risk. Absentee ballots went missing in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Last week, voters in Georgia and Nevada faced confusion and delay. So what can state officials do about that? NPR's Pam Fessler has been asking.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Everything seemed to come to a head in Georgia. Voters waited for hours as confused poll workers were unable to operate new equipment. Polling sites ran out of emergency ballots. Many, like Fulton County voter Latrisha Hernandez, tried to vote by mail but never got a ballot. So she came in person only to encounter more dysfunction.

LATRISHA HERNANDEZ: The system said I already voted, and I have never voted. And they were trying to get the system reset, but they didn't have the password to the system. So we had to sit to the side until they finally got a password to get it reset.

FESSLER: Still, her two-hour ordeal paled in comparison to others who had to wait past midnight to vote. One problem in Georgia, as elsewhere, is that election officials decided to consolidate polling sites, expecting that most people would vote by mail. Then, hundreds of poll workers didn't show up due to health concerns, so those who did show were overwhelmed.

SARA MULLEN: Another issue - in addition to a lot of voter confusion, there was a lot of poll worker confusion.

FESSLER: Sara Mullen at the ACLU of Pennsylvania says poll workers in her state mistakenly turned some voters away in the June 2 primary. In addition to new voting equipment and rules, they had to deal with protests and curfews in a number of cities.

MULLEN: So it really was a perfect storm. But I think it really shows that we don't know what's going to happen (laughter) in the fall. And so we should really prepare for that.

FESSLER: But preparing for the unexpected, especially in such turbulent times, is a challenge unlike any others that election officials have encountered before. And with just five months to go, there's little consensus on what needs to be done. Democrats would like to send every voter a mail-in ballot, but Republicans insist that would lead to fraud. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar favors a middle approach, sending every voter an absentee ballot application and figuring out what went wrong in the primary.

KATHY BOOCKVAR: That's really our first focus, is to plot out the entire mail-in process from start to finish.

FESSLER: As in many states, this was Pennsylvania's first experience with widespread mail-in voting. Over 1.4 million voters used it. But Boockvar says some counties handled it better than others.

BOOCKVAR: So what we're going to be doing over the coming weeks is really looking at every single step of the process, from the moment the application is made to the moment the ballot is received back.

FESSLER: To see what might work best in November. She says without a doubt local election offices need more money. Congress already approved $400 million, but the recent meltdowns have renewed the demand for additional funds.

BEN HOVLAND: I hear that every day (laughter), you know.

FESSLER: Ben Hovland is chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the agency that distributes the money. He says what's desperately needed are more and better trained poll workers. He suggests that election officials might partner with companies and nonprofits to recruit the army of workers required.

HOVLAND: This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for our democracy, and we need election officials to do their job. But citizens that can help out will go a long way to making this as successful as possible.

KATHLEEN HALE: We want a lot. Our expectations are very high, and they should be.

FESSLER: But Kathleen Hale of Auburn University says those expectations might need to be lowered. She trains election officials and says this year they're being asked to do almost the impossible.

HALE: If we want multiple methods of voting, if we want not being told but have the choice to vote by mail or in other kinds of ways, we have to provide the resources to do those things. Or it will all look like a miserable failure.

FESSLER: And undermine public trust. But she and others are worried about all the partisan finger-pointing. Republicans blame the problems on incompetent Democratic officials. Democrats fault Republicans for making it harder to vote. And they've made little progress so far on finding a solution.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.


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