Lengthy voter waits raise preparedness question

ATLANTA -- Long lines and lengthy wait times at the polls this week are stirring up partisan rancor over the state's election preparedness.

After reports of voters waiting upwards of five hours to cast ballots in some areas, state Democratic Party Chair Jane Kidd said in a letter sent Tuesday to Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel that she was "mystified" as to why Handel's office was so seemingly unprepared to accommodate the waves of voters expected to cast ballots in this election.

Kidd, stressing voting is not a partisan issue, called on Handel to keep advance voting locations open over the weekend and on Monday because "no one wants to see Georgia's failed processes become a national news story." She said the number of check-in computers at precincts is inadequate, and a major reason behind the long lines.

But Handel says Kidd's request is a ruse, and an impractical one since county election officials, who are responsible for equipping and scheduling polling places, must get changes that affect the voting process approved by the U.S. Department of Justice first. That's a requirement of the Voting Rights Act, with which Georgia and several other states with a history of discriminatory election practices must comply.

"For the Democratic Party to come forward at this late stage and try to cause chaos smacks of politics," she said. "There are significant and prohibitive legal hurdles, as well as logistical and practical hurdles."

Handel praised local election officials for their handling of the unprecedented 1.6 million voters who had cast ballots as of Thursday, and said most will spend the weekend preparing for the million more voters who will head to the polls on Tuesday. Apart from isolated polling place problems in four metro Atlanta counties on Monday, the average wait time in the state is under an hour, Handel said.

Local elections officials say getting approval for voting changes now is highly unlikely.

In Richmond County, where wait times have eased from three hours Monday to about a half-hour Wednesday, the last request to extend voting hours was in 2004, and had to be submitted to the Department of Justice at least 60 days before the election, said Lynn Bailey, executive director of the Board of Elections.

The department occasionally expedites approvals, but Bailey doubted that is feasible or necessary at this point in the voting process. Lines in Richmond County are due to the sheer number of voters, not inadequate check-in equipment, she said.

ԗe're all going to get through this. Meanwhile, we're going to put out the fires," Bailey said.

Contact reporter Jake Armstrong at (404) 589-8424 or jake.armstrong@morris.com.

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