Wearing a crisp gray suit, Marvin Arrington Jr. strode into the Wolf Creek Library in south Fulton County on May 2 – the first day of early voting for the May 24 primary – to vote for himself for a third term as a Fulton County commissioner. But the veteran politician made a startling discovery: Neither his District 5 county commission race nor his name was on the ballot. 

In Cobb County, the same issue arose for an undetermined number of early voters that same day. The problem only came to light when several voters noticed their ballots were missing the hotly anticipated Lost Mountain cityhood referendum. 

Like Arrington, they didn’t receive the correct ballot for their voting precinct because the database for ElectioNet, the Georgia Secretary of State’s voter-database management system, hadn’t been properly updated to reflect changes after last year’s redistricting. 

Then three days later, early voting sites across Georgia experienced a temporary ElectioNet outage that forced election workers to use either backup voter rolls or the Georgia My Voter Page to sign in voters and assign them ballots, a tedious process that led to long lines and frustrated voters.

Last week’s string of snafus, as the critical 2022 midterm election cycle gets underway, sheds light on the headache-inducing new complexities confronting election workers statewide as they navigate massive changes to both election districts and voting precincts from redistricting. Add to that a problem-plagued voter database management system and poll workers grappling with reshuffled districts in a fast-changing environment.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced in January that his office would roll out a new system by March to replace ElectioNet in time for the May primary, after it experienced outages during the 2020 election cycle from unusually high voter turnout. 

But the new Georgia Registered Voter Information System or GaRVIS had problems of its own, and its launch was postponed. That forced county election officials to rely on ElectioNet for the May primary period, as reported by the Dawson County News last month.

Early voting curveballs

Early voting magnifies all of these issues because Georgia voters can cast a ballot at any early voting location in the county where they’re registered to vote. That makes generating the correct ballot for each voter far more complicated.

The Secretary of State’s voter-database management system must be capable of producing ballots on the spot for 7.7 million Georgia voters across over 2,600 precincts–all with different state house, senate and congressional districts, plus county and municipal districts. 

On Election Day, by contrast, voters must use the precinct they’re assigned for their address, making it a lot simpler to load ballot cards for each precinct with the correct races. 

An already complicated situation was compounded by Georgia’s once-a-decade redistricting, enacted Dec. 30. That gave local election offices only a short amount of time–despite pleas from an overwhelming majority of the state’s county election officials to push the primary back a month–to respond to newly redrawn voting maps

The new districts affect races ranging from Congress to county commission, which adds to the complexity of the three-week early voting period that started May 2. 

As a result, Arrington’s District 5 county commission race didn’t appear on his ballot when he arrived at Wolf Creek Library around noon on the first day of early voting. 

Fulton Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr.

“I was expecting to be able to vote for myself,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle. “I saw the [Fulton County Commission] chairman’s race and then it skipped to a whole bunch of other races. I went through the rest of the [touch screen ballot] pages. I wasn’t on there anywhere. I immediately raised my hand and said ‘Hey, my name is not on here’.”

“Well, your name’s not supposed to be on there,” the poll worker replied, unaware she was talking to one of the county’s well-known politicians. To which Arrington shot back, “It better be.”

Arrington resolved his ballot mixup and was able to vote for himself after receiving a ballot card for the correct precinct. But it’s still unclear how many other voters were affected. 

Software glitches

Arrington’s name was missing from his ballot because a poll worker “initially provided him with a ballot for the incorrect precinct,” Fulton County spokesperson Jessica Corbitt told Atlanta Civic Circle.

But the ElectioNet software also caused ballot glitches countywide, she said. Fulton election workers “encountered discrepancies with ENET [ElectioNet] across the system” at all 30 Fulton County early locations,” Corbitt said. “We’ve had some issues with either the system going out or information in that system not always being accurate.”

Cobb County Commission Chair Lisa Cupid said in a mass text on May 6 that the glitch that left voters missing races on their ballots was from “improperly programmed poll pads,” referring to the touch screens used by election workers. “The Georgia Secretary of State’s office had not provided our vendor with the latest database, likely due to the recent redistricting process,” she added.

Finger-pointing

Fulton’s problems with the ElectioNet system led to a dustup with Raffensperger, who is running for re-election in a hotly contested Republican primary. 

The Secretary of State accused the Fulton elections office of finger-pointing. “Fulton’s attempt to pass the buck is just a continued disservice to their voters,” he said in a statement to Atlanta Civic Circle after the ballot snafus when early voting started May 2. 

“Their attempt to blame state systems is disproven by the fact that other counties, with less people and less resources, aren’t having these issues while using the same systems. Instead of fixing issues, Fulton points fingers, and their voters suffer. They better get their act together and get it together quickly,” he added.

Atlanta Civic Circle repeatedly reached out to Raffensperger’s office Friday for additional comments after Thursday’s temporary ElectioNet outage but did not receive a response.

That fusillade was just the latest in the war of words between Fulton and state election officials. The State Election Board initiated a performance review of Fulton’s elections operations last August that could lead to a temporary takeover, enabled under the controversial 2021 voting reform law, SB 202. The performance review panel has not yet issued its findings. 

Redistricting complications

Fulton is arguably the most affected of Georgia’s 159 counties by redistricting because it’s the most populous. During early voting, any of its roughly 792,000 active voters in over 300 precincts (which each have races in multiple districts) can vote at any Fulton early voting site.

Arrington said redistricting is partially to blame for the May 2 ballot snafu. His county commission District 5 is now “70 percent new,” he explained, because it’s been redrawn at the southernmost end of the county, where District 6 used to be. While Arrington is up for re-election, Fulton commissioners in the adjacent District 4 and District 6 are not. 

The first ballot Arrington received, which lacked the District 5 commission race, also was missing the statehouse election.

A comparison of Fulton County’s Commission district maps. The new map is on the left. Map provided by Fulton County.

Fulton is taking steps to guard against further snafus during the early voting period over voters receiving ballots for the wrong precinct, Corbitt said. 

“While the ideal solution is the correct operation of E-NET, we are training our election workers to prevent any future errors,” she said. “We’ve put in place a workaround where our election workers can verify that the information in ElectioNet is actually correct. They are to look up the voter in a spreadsheet that contains voters’ correct precincts.”

It’s a formidable task, she added, since Fulton has over 300 ballot combinations for all the different congressional, state house, state senate, board of education, and county commission districts.

To guard against human error, she added, Fulton has also “redoubled training and reminders to the early voting poll workers.”

Votes affected?

Elections offices in Fulton and other metro-Atlanta counties are still sorting out how many people were affected by the May 2 glitch.

“Fulton is preparing an analysis of the issue to determine the number of impacts,” Corbitt said. Cobb Elections Director Janine Eveler told the Marietta Daily Journal that the glitch in her county over the missing referendums was resolved by mid-morning that day.

Even so, it’s still unclear how many voters cast ballots missing races or referendums–or with the wrong one–for their precinct. Once a ballot is cast, the voter cannot vote again.

Arrington doesn’t think his ballot snafu will factor into the primary’s outcome, for his own race at least. He ran unopposed in the 2018 election, winning his commissioner seat with 99.5% of the vote. This go-round, however, he has a challenger, Robert Kelly, in the Democratic primary. 

“I plan to win by more than 29 votes,” he said, referring to the 29 people in county commission District 5 whom Fulton officials told him might have received a ballot without his name on it May 2, before he spotted the glitch around noon. 

Another early voter at Wolf Creek Library, a prominent pastor,  turned to Arrington while Fulton officials were sorting out the ballot mixup to say, “Well, you were on my ballot, so at least you got one vote.”

JUST SO YOU KNOW:

Georgia’s 2021 redistricting has reshaped voting districts for federal, state, and county races, especially in populous areas like metro Atlanta. Before you go vote – especially during early voting when you aren’t at your own precinct – it’s good to verify the districts for all the races on your ballot, in case any have changed.  

See your new district maps for Congress, state house, state senate, board of education and county commissioner here.

Find your personal sample ballot with all your voting districts here. Or, verify your current districts by typing your address into the Fulton Voting Districts Map Viewer.

When you vote, double-check your ballot on the touch screen and immediately notify poll workers if anything unexpected appears, or if any races or referendums are missing.

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