ATLANTA — On what should have been a signal day for democracy last week, when voters cast ballots in the statewide primary elections, the signs of a debacle were visible early: malfunctioning voting equipment, a bungled response to the pandemic, too few polling stations and the looming specter of police violence.
The lines in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward stretched three long blocks. At one site, voters couldn’t even cast ballots until four hours after the polling station opened. Some workers weren’t properly trained to use the new machines. Voters showed up at polling places that had quietly closed. It was a “hot mess,” said Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.
How could Georgia be so unprepared, especially after state officials twice delayed the primary vote?
Wait times of four to six hours were the last things we needed in a pandemic that has disproportionately killed black people and older people, and in a state that reopened prematurely. It’s part of a pattern of course, given Georgia’s long history of voter suppression and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
But we didn’t realize how bad things were until we visited our final polling place.
Around 9:30 p.m., an estimated 300 people were still in line at the “Christian City” polling location. So our colleagues asked us to come help. But when we arrived, we couldn’t believe what we saw: It was a nursing home.
It has been used as a polling location for years, but the state should have relocated it since one-third of all coronavirus deaths are of nursing home residents or workers as of May 11. Georgia acted recklessly when it allowed thousands of voters, predominantly black, to cast ballots there.
We and organizers from the New Georgia Project gave out masks, bottles of water and hand sanitizer, and we worked with legal observers to make sure polling officials moved the line along as fast as possible. We helped keep people’s spirits up and cheered as they walked out of the facility. We committed to staying until every last vote was cast.
Around midnight, a family with two little girls went home after the parents cast ballots. They had waited for five hours. Maybe voting was a family activity because the parents wanted it to eventually become a habit for their children — or maybe they had no other choice because they couldn’t find child care.
Not long after, when there were only about 75 people in the lobby waiting to cast ballots, the security guard reported us to the police.
Two police officers showed up and told us we had to leave, saying we were on private property. We reminded them of our rights and that they should be helping us to protect democracy and care for the voters. Our team included several lawyers from Fair Fight Action and All Voting Is Local — but before we knew it, six police cars arrived, their lights flashing. The police officers barked orders through their car speakers to try to intimidate us.
The trauma and stress nearly broke us.
Police encounters like this can lead to injury and death for black people just trying to live their lives. One gesture, or one word, could have added “supporting voters while black” to a deadly list that already includes jogging while black, sleeping at home while black and shopping while black.
Days later, and no more than 25 miles away, Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by the police after they found him sleeping in his car.
We knew how to de-escalate the situation, and we were able to fulfill our commitment to seeing every person vote. The last person didn’t vote until 12:37 a.m. She didn’t even get to vote on Election Day, a symbol of the dream deferred that Langston Hughes told us about.
To address these failures and be better prepared for the November elections, there must be accountability. In 2018, Brian Kemp, then secretary of state, effectively stole our votes — and was rewarded with the governor’s mansion. A lack of consequences is partly why our democracy is broken, not only in Georgia but also across the nation.
Protests against police violence have resulted in a few high-profile resignations and firings, including Atlanta’s chief of police. We need similar accountability for election officials. If Mr. Raffensperger does not resign, then he must be recalled by voters in August.
Georgia officials need to expand access to voting by mail; increase the number of polling places; replace the failed machines with simple and safer hand-marked paper ballots that will reduce wait times; and hire more poll workers and independent election observers. They should also disband the state’s voter fraud task force that serves only to intimidate voters.
There must be a reckoning. Black people have been victimized for hundreds of years but we are not victims. We refuse to let this debacle become a dress rehearsal for wide-scale systemic suppression of the black vote across the country.
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