By QUINN SCANLAN, ABC News
(ATLANTA) — Across Georgia, many voters experienced hours-long lines during the first two days of early voting, and now election officials are pushing back against accusations of voter suppression, arguing that there are more opportunities to cast ballots than ever before and that the many people taking advantage of that is part of what is causing delays.
“Georgia voters are excited and setting records every hour — and this is all during a pandemic, lest we forget… we will have a successful election, keeping all of our voting options accessible in all parts of Georgia, regardless of zip code,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said during a press conference Wednesday. “Some precincts are more favored than others by voters and they just have longer lines… (but) everyone will have the opportunity to vote.”
Images of voters in long, socially distanced lines that wrapped around buildings and spanned blocks from locations’ entrances prompted renewed claims of voter suppression, a familiar accusation in Georgia. That claim most recently reemerged following the June 9 primary, when counties limited early voting due to coronavirus, and then, on Election Day, grappled with precinct closures, poll worker shortages and lack of training, which caused confusion and delays that were exacerbated by the fact that it was the first election conducted with brand new voting equipment. While there were lines across Georgia on Monday, some of the longest were in the metro Atlanta counties, where there is a significant population of Black voters.
But election officials have tried to put the problem-plagued past behind them by greatly expanding early voting opportunities for the general election, compared with the 2016 cycle.
The first day of early voting fell on a federal holiday Monday, and despite locations only being open in 110 of Georgia’s 159 counties, voters shattered the previous day-one record set in 2016 by more than 37,000 votes. A combined 242,000 voters turned out to vote during the first two days, and including the record-breaking absentee ballot returns, more than 740,000 voters — over 10% of Georgia’s electorate — have already cast their ballots for the general election.
“As angry as we should be about the injustice and the voter suppression that is on display in Georgia, we should be extraordinarily pleased that people are willing to fight back and to make their voices heard, despite the challenges they face,” Stacey Abrams, founder of the voting rights organization Fair Fight, said on CNN Tuesday night.
The head of elections in the state’s largest county has told ABC News that the onus is on county election officials to “take care of our issues internally,” but on CNN, Abrams said the secretary of state “has refused to invest heavily in the areas where we need him to, to support elections,” and “counties that are doing their best to scramble to fill in the gap.”
There is agreement, however, that the strong voter turnout this week helped lead to long lines, with wait times reaching five hours — or even longer — at some locations in the state’s largest counties. While checking in workers, election officials experienced delays with the technology due to “bandwidth issues,” Raffensperger said.
Because of coronavirus, there are limits on the number of voting machines at each location to avoid too many people being inside at one time, and long lines end up looking even longer because voters are social distancing.
Voters who have requested absentee ballots are also showing up to vote in person, and that not only causes more stress on the check in system, but also takes more time, as the election workers need to go through a process to cancel that voters’ absentee ballot.
Counties where there are long lines are working to add more voting equipment where possible, Raffensperger said.
He said his office has been working with the third-party vendor to address the slowdown of the poll pads to speed up the check in process. According to his deputy, Jordan Fuchs, they’ve “seen marked improvement.”
Raffensperger encouraged voters who have requested absentee ballots to follow through by mailing back those ballots.
The metro Atlanta counties, Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and DeKalb counties, faced more than 90% of the problems during the primary, according to the secretary of state’s office, but those counties came into early voting better prepared, and are trying to alleviate the lines during the remaining 17 days of advance voting.
“If you have a lot of people engaged in the process, and a lot of people showing up and a high volume of voters, no matter how many polling locations you open up during early voting, you’re going to have lines. It’s not necessarily voter suppression… Every presidential election during early voting, we have lines,” Rick Barron, director of registration and elections for Fulton County, said during a press conference Tuesday.
DeKalb County’s director of voter registration and elections told ABC News that suppressing the vote isn’t the intention.
“I don’t think any director in the state of Georgia or any director in the country is trying to suppress anyone to the vote. We want every eligible voter to cast a ballot, and we have made preparations for that to happen,” Erica Hamilton, the director, said Tuesday.
In Cobb County, Janine Eveler, the director of elections and registration, echoed her sentiment.
Colin McRae, the chairman of the Board of Registrars in Chatham County, where Savannah is, said he understood the concerns of those claiming long lines are the result of voter suppression.
“If you consider voter suppression to be something that is deliberate and coordinated, then absolutely not… but I can certainly see how somebody feels that the effect of the long lines felt to them to be suppressive,” he told ABC News.
He noted that in southeast coastal county, another factor to the long lines is that voters are arriving well before locations even open.
“It creates an immediate backlog that leads to everyone who shows up after them being faced with this long line… because there is a wait at the outset, you know, each new person that shows up in line is staring down the barrel of a several-hour wait,” McRae said.
But he also said he didn’t want to characterize that as a “problem,” but rather a “phenomenon” of many wanting to vote.
Eveler said it wouldn’t be possible to add more early voting locations in Cobb County at this point, citing the amount of planning and time needed to get that done. Cobb had originally planned to have one additional advance voting location but faced a staffing issue and didn’t have enough managers to run the location.
In Gwinnett County, the main office location has had estimated wait times of up to eight hours. While there are nine locations open daily this cycle, the main office has been the only location open for the first two weeks of advance voting in past elections. Beginning Wednesday, there will be five additional voting machines and two additional issuing stations at the main office, a spokesperson for the county told ABC News.
In terms of staffing and equipment, Fulton County has “stretched ourselves to the limit” and is “at capacity for our resources for early voting,” Barron said Tuesday.
There are more than 30 sites open daily in Fulton, and unlike on Election Day, voters can go to any site in their respective county to cast their ballot during the early voting period. Fulton officials have encouraged voters to go to one of their “mega” voting sites, the State Farm Arena, where the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and WNBA’s Atlanta Dream play. There are 300 voting machines on site, so voters have been getting through the line much quicker — in 20 minutes or less — compared with other locations. There’s also free parking and a public transit station outside the arena, making it a convenient location.
Early voting continues through Oct. 30. While only one Saturday of early voting is required by the state, the five largest counties are offering voting both weekends, with all, except Cobb, opening locations on both Sundays that fall within the early voting period as well.
Every county will have significantly more voting locations open on Election Day, when voters are assigned to precincts based on where they live.
Raffensperger said that based on the way early voting has gone so far, election officials need to prepare for high turnout on Nov. 3, too.
“We are in a situation of having good issues,” he said. “We are working with the counties to assure they prepare for what we anticipate will be a record turnout for election day… We are analyzing each and every polling place to make sure they’re deploying enough equipment and personnel, so the voters won’t face the lines that some saw in June.”
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