Yesterday’s Georgia Primary Voting Debacle: A Preview of November’s General Election?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

I know I wrote on voting and legitimacy just the other day, but Tuesday’s Georgia primary was just so egregious I can’t let it go. In that post, I looked mostly at the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on voting, especially in the swing states, and hence on the perceived legitimacy of the 2020 result. In this post, I want to situate Georgia’s debacle in the context of grand old American tradition of election theft by insiders, and how electronic voting (both poll books and ballot marking devices) enables that.[1] Now, it is true elections like Georgia’s raise legitimacy questions. From the Associated Press, “‘Chaos in Georgia’: Is messy primary a November harbinger?”:

The long-standing wrangle over voting rights and election security came to a head in Georgia, where a messy primary and partisan finger-pointing offered an unsettling preview of a November contest when battleground states[2] could face potentially record turnout.

Many Democrats blamed the Republican secretary of state for hours-long lines, voting machine malfunctions, provisional ballot shortages and absentee ballots failing to arrive in time for Tuesday’s elections. Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential campaign called it “completely unacceptable.” Georgia Republicans deflected responsibility to metro Atlanta’s heavily minority and Democratic-controlled counties, while President Donald Trump’s top campaign attorney decried “the chaos in Georgia.”

It raised the specter of a worst-case November scenario: a decisive state, like Florida and its “hanging chads” and “butterfly ballots” in 2000, remaining in dispute long after polls close. Meanwhile, Trump, Biden and their supporters could offer competing claims of victory or question the election’s legitimacy, inflaming an already boiling electorate.

But the legitimacy questions arise exactly because the possibility of election theft exists. If we think back through all the examples of election theft in our rickety election system, from Florida 2000, Ohio 2004, Democratic primaries in 2016 and 2020, and doubtless other examples that will occur to you, we can see five techniques that occur over and over again:

  • Game the voting locations
  • Game the voting machines
  • Game the voter rolls
  • Game the ballots
  • Game the count

If we consider voting as a supply chain, these are links in the chain (which party operatives can weaken as needed). All have the effect of making it less likely for some slice of the electorate to vote (Black people, for example). I’m not saying that all these techniques are used in every, or even most elections, but the system certainly does put temptations in bad actors’ way.

Let us consider each in turn, with particular application to the Georgia primary just past. Not everything that can get thrown in this buckets is due to electronic voting machines, but you can find an electronic voting machine example in each one.

Voting Locations

Changing voting locations creates confusion. This is often combined with shrinking the number of voting locations. The effect is to turn some disfavored voters away, or to face them with long lines if they actually find where they are to vote. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

County election officials have closed 214 precincts across the state since 2012, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That figure means nearly 8 percent of the state’s polling places, from fire stations to schools, have shut their doors over the past six years.

…One-third of Georgia’s counties — 53 of 159 — have fewer precincts today than they did in 2012, according to the AJC’s count.

Of the counties that have closed voting locations, 39 have poverty rates that are higher than the state average. Thirty have significant African-American populations, making up at least 25 percent of residents.

Precinct closures can have legitimate reasons but have the result of discouraging voters, [Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor] said.

(For these reasons, there’s a lawsuit in play to restore the Voting Rights Act that the Roberts Court gutted in Shelby v. Holder.)

Voting Machines

Giving a disfavored voting location fewer machines creates long lines, turning some voters away. For example:

Another example:

And of course the machines may fail:

Or the printers can run out of paper:

(“Official receipt paper” sounds like a really good grift.)

Voter Rolls

Striking disfavored classes of voters from the rolls (say, those with Hispanic surnames) means that they cannot vote (or must vote with a provisional ballot, which are often not counted). Of course, electronic “poll books” provide new opportunities for failure:

Ballots

Ballots may be denied to voters by failing to mail them (possibly to disfavored zip codes), or by not printing enough of them, or by printer failure, again at disfavored locations. For example:

Nicholas Roth, 30, said he’d been in line at an Atlanta precinct where the woman ahead of him was told that she couldn’t vote because she’d already asked for an absentee ballot.

“She responded: ‘I never got an absentee ballot. That’s why I’m here,'” Roth said. The woman was sent to an area with other would-be voters who’d had similar issues.

“The individuals had requested absentee ballots, but they didn’t arrive in time to send in, but when they showed up to try and vote in person, they were blocked because the system had indicated they already had an absentee ballot, which, again, they said they never received,” Roth said.

Or locations can run out of ballots:

The Count

Finally, the count may be gamed. I’m including this heading for completeness, because I don’t understand enough about tabulation and how it differs from state to state (but see here and here).

Conclusion

Naturally, Democrats jumped all over the disaster. From The Hill, “Georgia officials launch investigation into election day chaos amid voter suppression concerns”:

“Voting machines down. Limited provisional ballots. Hours-long lines,” Harris tweeted. “#VoterSuppression is happening right now across Georgia, particularly in Black communities. We can’t let this happen in November.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also described the chaos in Georgia as voter suppression, calling on Republicans to support moving to mail-in voting.

“Voters in Georgia are facing outrageous voter suppression resulting from years of election system sabotage by Republican lawmakers,” Wyden tweeted. “If Republicans actually wanted you to vote, they would support #VoteByMail and hand-marked #PaperBallots.”

However, it’s worth noting that Los Angeles — under the control of a Democrat — had the first four of the listed techniques, concentrated in Latin (Sanders) districts. Michigan too had long lines in college (Sanders) districts. The Los Angeles VSAP e-voting system is a disaster in the making, just as much as Georgia.

Now, it is true that Republican Governor Kemp’s deal to bring in the voting machines has a very bad odor. From The New Republic, “Making Georgia’s Bad Elections Even Worse“:

But the governor’s most consequential move thus far has been to urge the state to buy super-pricey new electronic voting machines to replace its 27,000 ancient, notoriously hackable models that Kemp insisted on using last time for his own election. But lest you think Kemp is motivated by a desire for freer and fairer elections, there is, in fact, a Trumpian catch: The likely recipient of Georgia’s largesse will be a company that one of Kemp’s closest aides used to lobby for, while another served on its board of advisers. So far, Kemp’s administration has apparently been fueled by good old-fashioned crony corruption, rather than newfangled populism.

The cost of the replacement machines, known as ballot-marking devices (BMDs), is sky-high: Kemp included $150 million in his budget to buy them. That’s just an initial price, not including annual maintenance fees and licensing deals and such, but it’s at least three times what it would cost to have Georgians vote by paper ballot, as 70 percent of the country now does. Fiscal responsibility, y’all!

So, ka-ching. But even if the deal to bring in the voting machines were clean, they’d still be bad, because they enable the techniques listed above. To be fair, voting locations can be closed and ballots not mailed, but those make in-person voting more difficult by adding more voters. In addition, for disfavored districts machines can be removed, machines can fail, pollbooks can fail, and supplies can run out. And that’s before we get to hacking.

I think the whole attitude of electronic voting proponents can be summed up in this tweet. David Becker is the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research (oh, “innovation”):

Electronic voting can never fail! It can only be failed! Becker commits the classic neoliberal error of assuming labor is fungible. It is not. When I vote, the volunteers, who are mostly nice old church ladies do this: (1) Check my address against a printed voter roll, (2) cross out my name, and (3) hand me a paper ballot and, these days, (4) my own marker. Then I got to the scanner and insert my ballot, and another volunteer (5) hands me my “I Voted!” sticker. That’s because paper ballots are very, very simple and easy.

These volunteers did not sign up to clear paper jams, train voters how to use touchscreens, disinfect touchscreens by wiping them off, work the phones with technical support, or deal with irate crowds who have been waiting for hours.

The problem is not the volunteers, but the voting machines themselves, which introduce complexity without adding value (unless your value is election theft or, possibly, a steak dinner from a vendor).

NOTES

[1] I believe there is no good faith reason to choose electronic voting technologies (with the possible exception of scanners). Their only unique selling proposition is election theft.

[2] Pundits differ on whether Georgia is a swing state or not. Harry Enten: “Georgia was more competitive in the 2018 midterms than it had been in any midterm election in a generation. Democrats won 49% of the vote in the governor, attorney general and secretary of state races. US House Democrats combined to win 48% of the statewide vote, which was their highest share in a midterm since 1990.” Larry Sabato: “I define swing states as those in which the margin separating Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 was under six percentage points. Given the high degree of consistency in the outcomes of recent presidential elections from one election to the next, this seems like a reasonable standard. It yields a set of 13 states with a total of 163 electoral votes that could potentially be competitive in 2020: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.” Politico: “[D}emographic forces are combining to turn longtime red states Arizona and Georgia—neither of which has been a core battleground state before—into two of the most competitive in 2020.” But WABE (Atlanta NPR): “The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee still labels Georgia as an emerging battleground.”

APPENDIX

No, not Internet voting.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

28 comments

  1. upstater

    I believe that any paper scanner method should require a post election audit where a sample of ballots from each and every district are drawn to confirm electronically tabulated results. In quality control this is called acceptance sampling. In the event a sample diverges from a standard, there us either a second sample or 100% inspection.

    The BMD method should be SCRAPPED

    Reply
    1. Upstater

      Shouldda added acceptance sampling was developed in WW2 as a basic quality control tool. It is defined in MIL-STD 105D and ANSI/ASQ standards. It is somewhat similar to polling methods, but provides an acceptance/rejection level with a high degree of statistical confidence.

      Reply
      1. Adam1

        LOL! I swear I read it hear a couple years ago, but there have been reported instances of auditors finding discrepancies and certifying the damn machine numbers anyhow – I mean how could the machine be wrong?!?!

        Reply
    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The BMD method should be SCRAPPED

      The BMD method should be OUTLAWED. But good points on “acceptance sampling.” In fact, if tabulators are not already doing this, one might ask why.

      Reply
  2. rowlf

    From listening to some of the local chatter in Georgia, these sections of the AP Georgia voting story stand out:

    Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tweeted at Raffensperger about problems in pockets of metro Atlanta. 
    —–
    In an interview with The Associated Press, Raffensperger laid blame elsewhere, noting state law charges counties with on-ground operation of elections.
    “It’s really specifically in one or two counties, in Fulton and DeKalb counties, that had these issues today,” Raffensperger said. “It has nothing to do with what we’re doing in the rest of Georgia.”

    Raffensperger, minimizing problems that were documented in other counties, promised investigations of Fulton’s and DeKalb’s handling of the primary. The Republican speaker of Georgia’s state legislature, meanwhile, called for an investigation of the entire primary process, singling out Fulton County as “particularly” troubling.

    With the municipalities running the voting stations why couldn’t they coordinate how many machines they would need? Did they stage the story for political gain?

    What has been fun to watch here in Georgia is Secretary of State Raffensperger has been all in on mail in voting while slimy Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives David Ralston has been whining about how mail in ballots opens up election fraud.

    Another part of Georgia drama is the “Use It or Lose It” law, last amended by House Bill 889 in 1997 by a Democratic legislature and signed by Democratic governor Zell Miller, requires that voters who don’t vote or otherwise respond to requests from local voting offices to update their registration status be deemed inactive.

    Good times. This is all better than watching pro wrassling.

    (I would like hand marked ballots counted in public. And with poll observers from countries that don’t like the US.)

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > poll observers

      What terrifies me about a loss of election legitimacy is to what authority would we turn to give us a result? The intelligence community, I am afraid. That is just not a good thing.

      Reply
      1. rowlf

        If I remember correctly a close election is an automatic recount.

        The county I live in is majority Ba’ath party so most of the voting is of academic interest to me. Left nostril, right nostril, same snot. At least we have a very good sheriff. He got rid of a helicopter and military equipment saying it was crazy to waste the money on that stuff.

        Reply
  3. Ana

    Please don’t forget that the shape and size of the precinct is typically gamed. It’s called gerrymandering and is an art form here in California.

    Ana in Sacramento

    Reply
  4. Dr. John Carpenter

    Great article. It’s ridiculous and depressing that we have to go through this every four years. I’m not sure how things change because neither party has motivation to fix the system.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > neither party has motivation to fix the system.

      I would phrase this as a positive: Both parties have motivation to steal elections. Hence the purchase of BMDs, by both parties, and the failure of either party (whatever some traitors, like Ron Wyden, would say) to advocate for handmarked paper ballots, hand counted in public.

      Reply
      1. Off The Street

        That age-old parental cake problem solved with You divide and the other person chooses. Except that the parties agree behind the scenes to game that dessert system. Parents and voters deceived again, dog bites man.

        Reply
  5. Edward

    “I think the whole attitude of electronic voting proponents can be summed up …”

    Here is an alternative summing up of their thinking: “The electronic voting gravy train will dry up if we switch to paper ballots and my meal ticket will end. Therefore, electronic voting is the best voting system ever created by mankind.”

    Reply
  6. David Mills

    Paper Ballots
    Hand Marked
    Counted in Public
    Retained for 6 months

    Exit polls

    Uniform sized constituencies by population

    Its not that hard. Just shows the rot on both sides of the aisle. So we wonder why people want to burn it down…

    Reply
  7. Geo

    Great round-up. Makes me wish an international body would monitor our elections for us.

    One egregious election often forgotten was the 2012 GOP Iowa primary where it was first given to Romney, then to Santorum, then, after he’d already dropped out, it was given to Ron Paul by a substantial margin. It was such an obviously rigged count (and precursor to the 2019 Iowa Dem Primary fiasco) that Iowa should have never been allowed a “first in the country” primary again.

    https://www.businessinsider.com/ron-paul-wins-iowa-caucuses-2012-6

    Same one that sent Tea Party rising star Ken Sorenson to prison too.
    https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/09/21/kent-sorenson-was-a-tea-party-hero-then-he-lost-everything-220522

    Reply
    1. Keith McClary

      “Great round-up. Makes me wish an international body would monitor our elections for us.”
      First they would need to figure out what the rules are, which Americans can’t even agree on. Then they would have to get over their shock that Americans don’t actually have a right to vote.

      Reply
    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > One egregious election often forgotten

      And now, with the Democrat primaries safely out of the way, we have all the heartburning by Pelosi, et al.

      Naturally, liberal Democrats have purchased woke insurance in the form of Stacey Abrams’ NGO, which is apparently bringing a lawsuit. An NGO lawsuit has the twin virtues of (1) funding “rising star” Abrams, and (2) not accomplishing anything, certainly by 2022 (next midterms) and probably 2024. Why can’t the Democrats, for once in their lives, just do the right thing, with a single voice, as a party?

      Reply
  8. Basil Pesto

    But lest you think Kemp is motivated by a desire for freer and fairer elections, there is, in fact, a Trumpian catch: The likely recipient of Georgia’s largesse will be a company that one of Kemp’s closest aides used to lobby for, while another served on its board of advisers.

    That’s a weird way to spell ‘American’

    Reply
    1. Phillip Allen

      No, BP. This is the essence of America. Home of the 24/7 Carnival of Cruelty™ and the Infinite Grift. I’m not sure the ‘America’ you imagine ever existed anyplace but in narrative.

      Reply
  9. Carolinian

    Blame it on the hanging chads? When I lived in Georgia they had a functional system using IBM punch cards and plastic card holders to hold the ballot as you punched out the holes. This did produce a paper record–those IBM cards–and didn’t require each precinct to have expensive machines, just those plastic holders. Of course it also created problems if people didn’t fully punch out the holes but such errors could be presumed to be random and not in favor of any particular party. Then, After the 2000 debacle, disaster capitalism did what it does and used the Florida dispute to force nationwide adoption of expensive electronic terminals that have been controversial ever since. In theory the ballot marking machines are supposed to address that controversy by producing a paper trail.

    I’d say the manipulation and closing of precincts a much bigger issue than how the votes are counted. When I vote I walk two blocks away to a church that has been the voting location for decades (we once voted in the Boy Scout hut). Perhaps in a big city landscape there are reasons to be constantly changing poll locations but if there’s funny business this is likely where it is.

    Reply
  10. Rod

    Georgia is a mess on voting by choice, as LS illuminates in this short snapshot. There’s the pictures.

    SC is a mess on voting by choice. Columbia and the Low Country have unjustifiable problems.
    Our Gov. mumbled on about getting to the bottom of it—again after the Feb29 PresPrimary debacle.

    I have saved the LINDSEY GRAHAM flyer I received 4 weeks ago, as Evidence, extoling me to Avoid the Hassle of in person voting by–VOTING BY MAIL. Safe and Secure it assured me. The older, well dressed, happy Caucasion couple featured on the flyer reinforced that message.

    Then, on the Monday before Tuesday’s Election, our mail(always delivered after 4pm) contained THE POSTCARD informing us that our Polling location had been changed.
    32 years voting at the same Community Center(having a gym that voting machines are usually located in and about 60 parking spots) . The “New” location was at a Church tucked deep into a minority community with limited parking(we vote on the other end of the same minority community). About 24 parking spots and voting in a low ceiling Community Room about 24’x36′.

    Thinking this curious, my wife called our PollWorker friend who works at the standard Location( 20+ years) for some clarification.

    She had no clear idea of the change, was not asked to work at the changed location, and could only speculate that it was in anticipation of larger numbers of anticipated voters, and the increase in anticipated Mail In Ballots(???)

    At a smaller and more obscure location in the ‘Hood”.—that was also(compared to our standard location) in a bit of disarray with 3 of the 4 voting machines in operation and 1 ballot scanner.

    At this writing the ballot results have not been made Public.

    Reply
  11. rowlf

    Georgia has 159 counties and the AP story said two counties had problems. Is this still true? Did the headline get written first and then a few facts found to support it?

    Reply
    1. Carolinian

      Fulton and Dekalb are the major Atlanta city counties and would be the most heavily Democratic areas. There are several more counties to add for the greater metropolitan area. Then there are all those small rural counties.

      Reply
    2. rowlf

      Pondering the subject some more, if the media was doing some actual journalism instead of emotion manipulation it could look into the past 20 years of elections to see if there was a pattern of where voting problems occurred and if the state or the county was responsible for managing the polling stations.

      During the 2018 elections Brian Kemp mentioned in a radio interview that Stacey Abrams’ organization had a history of having many ineligible names when they tried to sign up new voters. I don’t think there are any saints in either party around here but I suspect a state version of the great game.

      Reply

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