Voting rights advocate James Davenport is worried about his community’s ability to vote in the upcoming Senate runoff. On Election Day, poll workers incorrectly redirected several of his mostly Black neighbors in an Old Fourth Ward senior apartment building to a voting precinct in Hapeville, 12 miles southwest of Atlanta, he said.
The commotion started late morning at the polling precinct at Central Park Recreation Center. Davenport had just finished voting when he noticed his neighbors from the Cosby Spear Memorial Towers, some of them wheelchair bound, were visibly frustrated after being told they couldn’t vote there. Some left in tears when poll workers said that their only other option was to cast a provisional ballot after 5 p.m., a new restriction under the state’s Election Integrity Act.
Unlike a regular ballot, a provisional ballot must be approved by the secretary of state’s office if you are directed to the wrong voting precinct. There’s no guarantee a provisional ballot will be counted.
Davenport, a member of the grassroots advocacy group Protect the Vote Georgia, immediately called his executive director, Hannah Joy Gebresilassie. Members of the group arrived at the precinct to help advocate for the residents.
“It was horrifying to see these individuals getting frustrated in front of the polling site, like so confused,” said Gebreselassie. “It’s disheartening, and it disenfranchises these types of voters.”
The Cosby Spear apartments are on North Avenue in Atlanta, which leads advocates to suspect that a computer error confused their location with North Avenue in Hapeville. Poll workers weren’t able to resolve the issue for hours, multiple people told Capital B Atlanta.
In response to questions from Capital B Atlanta, a spokesperson with the Fulton County Board of Elections said in a statement: “The matter presented in your inquiry has been resolved. The matter regarding the seniors involved the data entry of ZIP codes. The Elections team has reached out to the Senior Facility to inform the residents that the matter has been resolved and will not be an issue during the December 6 Runoff Election.”
A representative with the secretary of state’s office did not respond to Capital B Atlanta’s request for comment.
Changes to voting rules under the Election Integrity Act — a Republican-sponsored bill that created a bevy of new restrictions, including when voters can cast provisional ballots — made Davenport particularly concerned about his neighbors’ experience.
“I’m more skeptical now, because of the things that Republicans are doing,” he said. “Some people have lived here 20 or 30 years and never had that problem before. So in the meantime, I said, ‘Something smells strange. It smells fishy to me.”
The affected voters contacted by Capital B Atlanta declined to speak on the record.
Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer at the secretary of state’s office, declared Election Day in Georgia “wonderfully, stupendously boring” earlier this month as voters enjoyed short lines at their precincts, many less than 10 minutes. But now, Davenport and other voting rights advocates are worried whether the residents of Cosby Spear will have the same experience on Dec. 6, when polls open again for the Senate runoff between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker.
“People in our community, they do vote. In the elderly community, we tend to take a liking to use the opportunity to do so,” Davenport said. Many describe the residents of Cosby Spear as politically active, which is in line with the trends of Black seniors across the nation.
Among the first beneficiaries of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black seniors tend to be loyal voters and are a backbone of the Democratic Party. According to a recent survey from Kaiser Family Foundation and The Grio, Black voters are older than the general Black population and are more likely to identify as Democrats. Black voters over the age of 50 were also more motivated to vote in the 2022 midterms than their younger counterparts.
Kia Barnes, a local Atlanta comedian and podcast host, witnessed the commotion and began video recording on her phone when she noticed four residents of the building on scooters looking frustrated. She spoke to two residents who ultimately decided to leave, which worried her.
Barnes said she has had issues voting in previous elections, and was asked to fill out a provisional ballot one year.
“That’s why I jumped in to try to help, because I was so frustrated and I have resources and I know who to call,” Barnes said. “I said, ‘I’m gonna sit here with you until we get this situation figured out, whether it’s you being able to vote here, or us getting you a ride,’ but they ended up leaving.”
Toni Watkins, an organizer with Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, or URGE, said she did her best to get someone from the secretary of state’s office on site, but was unsuccessful. After more than four hours, poll workers fixed the problem, but couldn’t get a hold of all who were turned away.
For Watkins, it was evidence of how voter restrictions put in place ahead of the election, like the Election Integrity Act, suppress the vote.
“You just have to dissuade the right folks. So, if we can get older black people, who are the champions of voting historically in our community, to be pissed off enough to just tap out, then you can get anyone to just tap out,” she said. “If you can get people who fought dogs and tear gas to cast their votes to say, ‘You know what, to hell with it, I’m tired,’ then I think that shows them, ‘We can break these people down.’”