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Primary voting in Georgia hits early hurdles

Five states are holding primaries Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Between long lines, shortages of poll workers, delayed poll openings and issues with voting machines, election officials -- who made significant changes to how the statewide primaries will run to adapt to the coronavirus -- were off to a rough start in a state far too familiar with messy voting.

Fulton County, the state's largest county that includes Atlanta, is confronting an array of challenges, with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms taking to Twitter this morning to outline the reported issues and encourage voters to weather thee storm to have their ballots counted.

"@FultonInfo, voters in line at Ralph Bunche precinct, one of the largest in Atlanta, say NONE of the machines are working. Please address this ASAP," she wrote early Tuesday. "Now being told line is out to the street at Sandtown Recreation Center and their machines are not working either @gasecofstate. Is this happening across the county or just on the south end?"

Some voters in Atlanta were waiting in line to vote for three hours, according to a local reporter with ABC affiliate WSB.

Amid the troubles marring election day, basketball superstar LeBron James took notice, responding to a tweet about the differences in wait times in parts of Fulton County with significant African American populations and those with predominantly white populations, saying the disparities exemplify systemic racism.

"Everyone talking about 'how do we fix this?' They say 'go out and vote?' What about asking if how we vote is also structurally racist," he said.

The campaign of the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, too, weighed in on the "significant issues" across the state, calling them "completely unacceptable."

"Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy. What we see in Georgia today, from significant issues with voting machines to breakdowns in the delivery of ballots to voters who requested to vote absentee, are a threat to those values, and are completely unacceptable," said Rachana Desai Martin, the Biden campaign’s national director for voter protection and senior counsel, in a statement to ABC News. "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. Our campaign will remain fully engaged in defending that right."

But the election day obstacles extended beyond Fulton County.

In Cobb County, which sits in the suburbs of Atlanta, a spokesperson for the county elections office told ABC News that the problems are not as widespread as those to the east but a few precincts "experienced delayed opening this morning due to some equipment issues. It was a "combination of new machines and inexperienced poll workers," the spokesperson said, before adding that they may ask a judge to keep open a few of the 143 precincts in the country, but as of now, wait times are "better than expected."

In Savannah, a coastal city in Georgia which sits in Chatham County where there are widespread voting machine outages, one voter expressed her frustrations over the long lines.

Madeleine Madsen told ABC affiliate WJCL earlier on Tuesday that she has been waiting in line for "an hour and a half" and said, "the line progressively got longer and we weren't informed about what was going on."

"I've seen several like a majority of people leave after being here for 30 minutes because, like they have jobs to get to they have other things that they need to knock out in their day and they also got here early, because they just wanted to get it done with," she added.

Van Johnson, the mayor of Savannah, said of the outages at a press conference, "this appears to be a widespread issue," but added that the city does not oversee the voting process. The county board of elections, who oversees the elections in the county, said they are "actively working" on the "variety of problems at several polls," according to WJCL.

But the scale of the problems across Fulton County led to both state parties trading blame, with the state GOP blaming "incompetence" at the county level and the state Democratic Party putting the blame squarely on Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican.

"This unacceptable incompetence will effectively disenfranchise countless eligible voters across Georgia's largest county," Stewart Bragg, the executive director of the Georgia Republican Party, said in a statement.

"The Secretary of State's job is to provide adequate support and training for counties as he implemented Georgia's new voting system, and he has failed. Across the state, Georgia voters are waiting for hours to cast their ballots because Georgia's system is failing them," said Maggie Chambers, a spokesperson for the Georgia Democratic Party.

Leading into Tuesday, Fulton County had issues with recruiting poll workers during the pandemic, with state Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta, making a dire plea on Twitter on Friday, "URGENT—Fulton County needs 250 people to staff elections on Tuesday... We need you. Please spread the word."

But by midday Tuesday, the secretary of state's office denied that there were any problems with the voting equipment, instead putting the onus back on local election officials.

Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state, told ABC News that the issues are stemming from a lack of experienced poll workers.

"There is a line that's been coordinated throughout the county, that the machines have failed, and every time I go in there with one of our investigators or one of our machine techs, it becomes very clear that it is related to the poll worker not being trained properly," she said, adding that she'd heard reports of workers being trained Tuesday morning. "If you want to give Fulton some grace here, it's because they were having issues doing poll worker recruitment. But there are no equipment errors here."

Raffensperger announced late Tuesday that he is opening an investigation into the Fulton and DeKalb counties election processes, where most of the problems occurred, according to ABC affiliate WSB.

"The voting situation today in certain precincts in Fulton and Dekalb counties is unacceptable," he said. "My office has opened an investigation to determine what these counties need to do to resolve these issues before November’s election. Obviously, the first time a new voting system is used there is going to be a learning curve, and voting in a pandemic only increased these difficulties. But every other county faced these same issues and were significantly better prepared to respond so that voters had every opportunity to vote."

In Fulton County, the issues of delayed openings and machines being down reached 16 locales, while in DeKalb County, which sits just outside Atlanta to the east, seven locales reported issues with either voting machines, delayed openings, or with provisional ballots.

Voting issues in Georgia are not new -- but they do come as the state features a slate of competitive races this cycle.

In 2018's gubernatorial contest, Stacey Abrams, the former state House minority leader, lost in a close race to now-Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who was secretary of state at the time. She accused him throughout the campaign of engaging in voter suppression, as he held dual roles of overseer of elections and candidate for the state's top executive job -- an allegation he denied.

Despite's Georgia's widespread issues, four other states, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina and West Virginia, are also voting on Tuesday, with voting appearing to run more smoothly.

In South Carolina, the state elections commission said that the record number of absentee ballots could potentially lead to delays in vote tallying, but did not believe those would persist beyond Tuesday.

"We have had a record-setting number of absentee ballots for a statewide primary, most of them by mail," a spokesperson with the state elections commission told ABC News. "The number of by mail ballots is not a record overall, we had more in the 2016 general election, but they are similar numbers. So we have nearly the volume of by-mail that we would see in a presidential election."

"So, it will take longer than it would have otherwise. It's possible there will be delays, but hopefully everyone is done tonight," the spokesperson continued.

In West Virginia, with only a limited number of voters allowed inside a polling site at once, poll workers reported a slow start. But at least one voter was ready for a more time-consuming process.

"I expected it to be slow the early part of the day, people coming out and getting used to all of this," said Mark Grimmett, a voter in Charleston. "It's been a tough year, just have to get through it all."

ABC News' Meg Cunningham contributed to this report.

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