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Monday, May 19, 2014 - 12:43pm

Georgia’s High-Stakes Primary Is Tuesday. But Are Voters Ready?

Tuesday, Georgia will hold the earliest primary election in the state’s history. And for the first time, voters were able to register to vote online. Early voting wrapped up on Friday, with a record 239,000 Georgians casting ballots.

But election officials are still wondering: are people paying attention?

“We’ve talked in the office and it doesn’t seem like there’s much excitement about the election,” said Rick Barron, who’s in charge of elections for Fulton County.

That’s despite double the number of Fulton residents voting early for the primary this year, compared to 2010, even with three fewer weeks to vote early. Fulton typically has the highest number of early voters of any county in Georgia. Statewide, early voters amounted to less than five percent of registered voters – not a strong turnout.

U.S. Senate Race Has Voters’ Attention

Those who are keeping an eye on the state’s politics say this year’s primary and general elections are critical. A U.S. Senate seat is in play, and the incumbent Governor, Nathan Deal, faces significant opposition. In state legislative races, House Speaker David Ralston, one of Georgia’s most powerful Republicans, is fighting for his job in a contentious primary race against a Tea Party candidate.

Sandra Strickland of Atlanta said she’s watching the U.S. Senate race closely. After voting last week at the Northside branch of the Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library, she said Common Core is one of the key issues she’s following. And in fact, it’s so important to her, she still had some doubts after casting her ballot in the Republican primary.

“I hope I made the right decision,” she said, declining to say who she voted for. “This Common Core thing, with the public school system, some of these Senatorial candidates are for it, and some are against. I wanted to make sure I got my two cents in. I’m not certain it’s the best thing for Georgia, or the country for that matter.”

Common Core is a set of education standards that 46 states including Georgia have voluntarily adopted. And she said even beyond Common Core, the person who replaces Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who’s retiring, will have an incredible responsibility. And Strickland says that means voters have an incredible responsibility.

‘Balance Of Power’ In the U.S.

“It has to do with the balance of power, truly in the country,” she said. “There are fewer seats that are up for grabs and there’s quite an importance there.”

Others point to the importance of the gubernatorial election, which will serve as a referendum on Deal’s first term.

“The Governor’s race is interesting. We’ve got the present Governor and young Carter,” said Richard Moore of Fairburn. After a pause, he added, “I’m voting for Carter, if you want to know.”

The former poll worker said he made a point of casting his vote even though Carter is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Moore said he’s attracted to Carter because of his grandfather who he said “is a good man. He’s spent his years helping people all over the world.”

Strickland and Moore are part of a small but growing group of voters who cast ballots early. Slowly, early voting is catching on with voters who have long considered Election Tuesdays the only time to cast a ballot. This year, the early voting period was much shorter. But some voting officials are still hoping the majority of votes cast will eventually come before election day.

Barron, the head of Fulton County’s elections, he says he’s trying to make it as easy as possible. And that’s why Fulton County upped the number of early voting sites to 19 this year in the final two weeks before the primary.

Ambitious Early Voting Goals

“You know, our goal was just to make it more convenient for voters and also by the presidential election, I’d like to see two-thirds of the voters voting early,” he said.

That’s the 2016 presidential election, a mere two years away.

“It will take several elections to get the electorate to vote early,” he said.

For some, voting early has already become a ritual.

“I’m going to do it with my girlfriend. We do it together,” said Naim Williams of Atlanta. “It’s just something we can talk about together. Another family thing we can do.”

Williams, who’s a military veteran, said he’s very interested in the races farther down on the ticket – the ones that don’t have anything to do with the U.S. Senate or gubernatorial races.

“Local politics, local decision-making, I think that’s more important than Senate or Congress,” said Williams. “I think it starts at the bottom, the grass-roots programs. I think when you start getting into local politics, what’s going on right in your community, that’s what I’m interested in.”

He added, “If you want the right to complain, you have to vote. And early voting just makes it so easy.”

Polls across Georgia will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

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