Battleground: Ballot Box | Long Lines, Record Turnout Mark Start of Early Voting
On Monday, Oct. 12, in-person early voting began in Georgia, and with it came long lines, problems with voting equipment, and a sinking feeling that the issues that plagued June’s primary were doomed to be repeated. It seemed like deja-vu for many voters.
Thanks in part to a law that requires three weeks of voting, including a mandatory Saturday, more Georgians cast ballots during early voting than on Election Day or through absentee ballots. This election in particular has many people determined to make their voices heard, including 71-year-old John Glover.
“I have voted in every election and I’ve never stood in line this long," he said. "It’s worth the wait. I'm prepared to stand eight hours if I have to."
Voters lined up in droves across the state, from the mountains to the coast, from Lawrenceville to Valdosta, and some indeed waited up to eight hours to cast their ballot. Fulton County, home to 11% of the state’s active voters, opened more than 30 sites, including three locations with more than 50 machines to accommodate a rush of voters.
The crown jewel of Fulton County polling places is State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta, lying dormant thanks to an NBA season played in Orlando and repurposed to serve as the state’s largest-ever voting location. Sixty check-in stations and 300 voting machines were lined up and ready to go, with queues set up to snake past empty concession booths. The nearby MARTA station was reopened for business.
However, shortly after polls opened, the poll pads used to create voter access cards and pull up the correct ballot on the voting machines stopped working. Lines stretched through the arena out the doors and back to the big red CNN Center sign.
Fulton elections director Rick Barron, joined by Hawks CEO Steve Koonin and Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts, outlined the problem and the swift solution.
“There's something with the database on the poll pads," Barron said. "We've worked with KnowInk this morning who makes the poll pads. In advance of this election, we've purchased some cradle points from them just in case we had any issues. We were able to use those cradle points and get all 60 full pads reset quickly to get the voters through the lines."
Sure enough, during the 10-minute question-and-answer session, dozens of voters began trickling behind the speakers through the check-in process and onto the arena floor. Adrienne Crowley, a teacher who lives in Atlanta, waited nearly 90 minutes while the issue was addressed. Crowley said she felt that people would underestimate how many Georgians were ready on the first day of early voting, and that the state's electorate had been "waiting to vote."
"I didn't expect to wait this long, but I would have waited all day if I had to," she said.
Around the metro Atlanta area, things seemed more dire.
Online wait-time trackers in Cobb and Gwinnett Counties showed that it would take more than five or six hours in some locations to get through the socially distanced lines — even with a record number of polls open. One Marietta voter detailed a nearly 11-hour ordeal on Twitter.
In all, the state reported that more than 131,000 voted in about 125 counties, one of the highest totals ever for in-person early voting across the nation.
But a one-day sample was not enough to indicate whether the long lines had been generated by voter enthusiasm, the typical rush to start early voting, or the fact that Monday was a holiday. And so Tuesday rolled around.
By now, every county had opened early voting polls. Hundreds began lining up in the early hours of the morning. Yet somehow things were taking longer.
Reports were trickling in of painfully slow check-in times, some as little as 10 voters per hour. Some of that time was spent dealing with voters who had requested a vote-by-mail ballot but decided not to use them.
According to the secretary of state’s office, more than 1.6 million Georgians applied to vote by mail in the general election, and as of Friday 620,000 have been returned. Many of the 687,000 that have cast their ballot in person cited a distrust with Georgia's mail-in voting system.
Georgia is a key player in this election, as polls show a tight race between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden, and the state has both Senate seats on the ballot within the margin of error for a toss-up.
As tensions foment and excitement rises in the coming weeks, here are several things to consider when planning to vote:
First, if you are looking to vote early, do so before the final days, when the already-record-breaking crowds are projected to get bigger. Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties have created online trackers for you to see which locations have shorter wait times — and in Fulton, if you go to State Farm Arena, officials say you will be in and out before you know it.
Early voting locations and times can be found by contacting your county elections office, and we have a link here on the GPB website.
Elections officials also say that one thing you can do to facilitate a smooth voting process for everyone is to not begin congregating hours before polls open up. With limited voting machines and social distancing in effect, there are only so many people who can be processed in an hour, even without a technology slowdown. Long, pre-dawn lines simply exacerbate the bottleneck stoppage effect that we have seen too often at polling locations, officials say.
Lastly, if you’re one of the million or so people who has requested and received an absentee ballot and has not yet returned it, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urges you to please do so as soon as possible in order to keep lines down for early voting and Election Day.
Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show at gpb.org/battleground or anywhere you get podcasts.
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