The Democratic Senate primary in Georgia was too early to call Wednesday, as Jon Ossoff held onto approximately 49 percent of the vote with more ballots coming in — amid widespread reports of hourslong lines, voting machine malfunctions, provisional ballot shortages and absentee ballots failing to arrive in time.
Ossoff, whose defeat in a 2017 special election was a gut-punch to Democrats who flooded his campaign with money, was leading Sarah Riggs Amico and Teresa Tomlinson. They each have roughly 13 percent of the counted vote, and candidates need 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.
One of the state’s largest counties, De Kalb in the metro Atlanta area, has yet to report any results as of early Wednesday.
As the night wound on, and races were also held in South Carolina, Nevada and West Virginia, it became evident that the long-standing nationwide wrangle over voting rights and election security had come to a head in Georgia — where a messy primary and partisan finger-pointing offered an unsettling preview of a November contest when battleground states could face potentially record turnout.
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign called the situation “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.
At Trump’s campaign headquarters, senior counsel Justin Clark blamed Georgia’s vote-by-mail push amid the COVID-19 pandemic, alluding to the president’s argument that absentee voting yields widespread fraud.
“Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud,” read the conclusion of a bipartisan 2005 report authored by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, which was chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker.
That conclusion has been echoed elsewhere. A 2012 article in The New York Times was headlined: “Error and Fraud at Issue as Absentee Voting Rises.” The article states that “votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth, statistics show.”
Experts have said that a “genuine absentee ballot fraud scandal” is underway in a recent New Jersey city council election. Nevertheless, Twitter and other sites have suggested that mail-in balloting does not increase the risk of fraud, and have sought to censor contrary views.
“The American people want to know that the results of an election accurately reflect the will of the voters,” Clark said. “The only way to make sure that the American people will have faith in the results is if people who can, show up and vote in person.”
Rachana Desai Martin, a top Biden campaign attorney, called the scenes in Georgia a “threat” to democracy. “We only have a few months left until voters around the nation head to the polls again, and efforts should begin immediately to ensure that every Georgian — and every American — is able to safely exercise their right to vote,” she said.
Martin stopped short of assigning blame, but two Georgia Democrats on Biden’s list of potential running mates pointed at Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who led the selection of Georgia’s new voting machine system and invited every active voter to request an absentee ballot.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tweeted at Raffensperger about problems in pockets of metro Atlanta. “Is this happening across the county or just on the south end,” the Democrat asked, referring to an area with a heavily black population.
Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor and an Atlanta resident, tweeted that “Georgians deserve better” and that Raffensperger “owns this disaster.” Abrams established herself as a voting rights advocate after she refused to concede her 2018 race against now-Gov. Brian Kemp.
Fulton County, which includes most of Atlanta, has a history of slow vote tabulation. Its local elections chief, Richard Barron, called Tuesday a “learning experience” while alluding to the state’s role in the primary process.
The finger-pointing goes beyond details of the law. Raffensperger correctly noted that county officials train poll workers, including on the use of the new voting machines. But Raffensperger is the state’s chief elections official who decides how many machines to send to each county, and his office provides training curriculum for local officials.
On absentee ballots, the Republican secretary of state pushed unprecedented no-fault absentee access, paying to send an application to every Georgian on the active voter rolls. But, as Barron noted, neither the secretary of state nor the legislature provided additional money for local officials to hire staff to process the influx, which dwarfed the typical primary.
History suggests that both local and state officials, whether in Georgia or elsewhere, could find themselves in the national crosshairs if their election tallies leave the presidency in flux.
“I know that in these hyperpartisan times, half the people will be happy, and the other half will be sad,” Raffensperger said. “But we want to make sure that 100% of people know … the election was done fairly and we got the accurate count.”
Elsewhere in Tuesday’s races, a progressive candidate featured in a Netflix documentary on politics won the Democratic Senate primary in West Virginia to face Republican Sen. Shelly Moore Capito in November.
Paula Jean Swearengin was featured in the 2019 Netflix political documentary “Knock Down the House.” She accepted only individual donations during her campaign and outraised one of her two opponents, former state Sen. Richard Ojeda, by a more than 10-to-1 margin. Also seeking the Democratic nomination was former South Charleston Mayor Richie Robb.
Meanwhile, two incumbents won the Republican nominations for governor in West Virginia and South Dakota.
Gov. Jim Justice was declared the primary winner in West Virginia on Tuesday, while Gov. Doug Burgum captured the GOP nomination in North Dakota.
Justice, a billionaire coal and agricultural businessman, defeated Woody Thrasher, Mike Folk and others to win the GOP nomination. This week, President Trump tweeted a message of support for the governor: “Big Jim is doing a tremendous job for West Virginia. Vote for Big Jim!”
Burgum, a former software executive, defeated Michael Coachman in the election, which was conducted exclusively by mail. He’s expected to be a heavy favorite in November over Democratic political newcomer Shelley Lenz, a veterinarian and small-business owner.
And, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango won the Democratic nomination for governor of West Virginia.
Two Republican incumbent senators also won their primaries on Tuesday: Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.
In Nevada, voters were waiting in lines for three hours and more Tuesday at limited polling places despite Nevada officials encouraging people to cast their primary election ballots by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevada Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Wayne Thorley said his office had received a report of a three-hour wait at one Clark County polling place.
Fox News’ Tyler Olson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.