Voting is a messy business.

That much was evident last week in some Metro Atlanta counties where long lines at the polls led to a national outcry. Some people reportedly waited nearly six hours to vote in Fulton and Dekalb counties.

The problems made national news. Democrats said it was an example of voter suppression by the state. Republicans said it was just incompetence at the county level.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, plus a bunch more issues that were the fault of nature and human error.

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Ballot issues aren't foreign to me. For many, many years, our publishing firm printed ballots for a number of counties around the state. That included the old paper ballots and the punch cards used by early automated equipment in the 1980s.

It's complicated.

There isn't just one ballot in most elections. There are multiple versions of ballots based on party, school district, commission district, fire district, municipal residency, state districts and other sub-sub-sub-ballots of various combinations. The June 9 election had over 70 different ballot versions just in Jackson County alone.

In addition, simple things can lead to big problems.

In 1984, we printed the punch card style ballots used in a heated sheriff's race in Jackson County (among other local races.)

But the sheriff's election results ended up in court because of a simple ballot issue. The punch cards used at the time required voters to slide a lever up and down and punch a hole next to a name to record a vote. It happened that the sheriff's race was at the bottom of a card with one empty space below it. Some voters pulled the lever to the bottom of the card and punched, but that punch wasn't attached to any candidate so it didn't count.

A lawsuit ensued and the ballot boxes were taken into court, opened and manually counted. Turns out there wasn't enough "error" votes to make a difference in that race, so the outcome stood with Stan Evans defeating the incumbent.

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That kind of human error — punching the wrong hole, or marking a paper ballot the wrong way — has always been a part of elections.

Maybe the worst problem locally was in 1968 when a runoff between two candidates for sheriff ended with a one-vote difference. A recount was ordered, but 2,200 votes were thrown out by the court, around 40 percent of the total votes cast. Those ballots were marked wrong by voters and were tossed out, even though the voter's intent was pretty clear.

Can you imagine what would happen today if 40 percent of an election's ballots were thrown out?

We saw a similar issue last week with the massive number of paper absentee ballots that flooded into the Jackson County elections office. Quite a few of those ballots were marked wrong by voters who put a check or an X  to vote rather than filling in the bubble. The new state-ordered scanning machine for absentee ballots rejected votes where the bubble wasn't filled in correctly.

But those votes weren't thrown out as happened in 1968.

Ballots that were marked wrong last week were studied by a trio of poll workers who attempted to discern the voter's intent. If that intent was clear, then the ballot was recreated and marked correctly by the team so it would scan and the votes counted. If the team couldn't figure out the voter's intent, no vote was marked for that race(s).

Some other ballots were rejected here last week because there was no voter signature, or the signature didn't match the one on file, or there was some other problem that the voter didn't get cleared up by Friday's deadline.

People make mistakes on ballots; they don't read or follow the instructions. Human error is endemic to the voting process and it's difficult to find a way to make voting idiot-proof.

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But the problems in Atlanta weren't simple voter error. The long lines at those polls were the result of several factors that created a perfect storm:

• Because of the COVID virus, a lot of poll workers didn't show up to work. That forced some counties to consolidate voting locations. The result was to overload some voting locations that didn't have enough staff or equipment to handle the overflow.

• This was the first big election with the state's new voting equipment and apparently, not enough poll worker training was done in some counties.  There were also some technical issues at some locations.

• The state allocated equipment to the counties and may have not allocated enough in some places. (Jackson needed a second absentee scanning device for this election, but didn't get but one from the state.)

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Democrats see the problems a little differently. Many believe that the state manufactured the problems in Fulton and Dekalb counties in an effort to tamp down minority votes in those minority communities.

That's not a difficult allegation to make. Some state Republican leaders do want to put their fingers on the scales and take actions that discourage minority voting. The exact-match naming system is a case in point of attempting to dissuade voting by minority voters, most of whom vote for Democrats.

But both Fulton and Dekalb counties are Democratic strongholds and have local Democratic leadership. It's difficult to imagine that they would sit by silently if the state was attempting to rig the election system in their backyards.

So the truth is probably this: There was election incompetence by local officials in those communities, but because they are Democratic areas, the state probably didn't make it a priority to help fix the problems.

On the other hand, if the state had stepped in, Republican state officials would have been accused to trying to take over the local officials' roles, causing another outcry of election meddling by Republican officials.

It's a mess.

•••

Jackson County didn't have long lines at the polls last week. With just four voting locations, the county was able to field enough poll workers and deploy enough voting machines to keep the lines short.

It it did take a long time to count absentee ballots in Jackson County, but that was mainly due to the massive flood of absentees due to the COVID virus and the lack of equipment to process them.

Jackson County's bigger election problem is that its elections board has become a circus.

Two years ago, Republican Rep. Tommy Benton, in cahoots with local Republican leaders, changed the board from a non-partisan 3-member group to a politically-partisan 5-member board.

In the process of that, local GOP activist Ron Johnson got named as chairman of the elections board. His clear intent was to use his elections board seat to further the GOP cause.

Johnson didn't last long because he refused to stop his political activity while serving as board chairman.

Now, the board isn't run by GOP politics, but continues to be plagued by internal strife.

Much of that controversy revolves around elections board member Erma Denney.

Denney has a long political history in the county, much of it as a one-person activist.

Always garrulous, Denney tends to question just about everything, second-guess staff leadership and challenge those who she disagrees with. And she tends to bring up the same subject over and over, bulldogging an issue ad infintum.

Last Friday during the board's meeting to certify the election, board chairman Eric Crawford had enough and fired back.

He told Denney that she talked too much, that she had "pissed-off" people with her "relentless" comments and questions and that she was "pestering the hell" out of people.

But Crawford's strong rebuke didn't seem to faze Denney, who continued to comment or question everything before the board during Friday's meeting, a situation that made what should have been a 30-minute meeting last for over two hours.

It's difficult to imagine how any board can function effectively when one member tends to dominate all the air in the room.

Mama always said, talk less and listen more and maybe you won't show your butt in public.

Wisdom to live by.

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