Determined Georgia voters cast ballots early as lines stretch for hours

Former Second Lady Jill Biden rallies support for her husband Joe Biden in Decatur. Biden visted Decatur and Columbus on Monday, the first day of early voting in the state. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Single mom Sarah Bernstein of Sandy Springs waited two hours at her polling place Monday morning and got about halfway through the line. She left without casting a ballot so she would have the chance to see former Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden speak in Decatur.

“If it weren’t for coming to this event, I would have totally stayed,” said Bernstein, who carried a Biden sign and wore a pin with the face of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “And I mean, people weren’t leaving, I would say I only saw one other person in the line leave besides ourselves.”

Voters across Georgia reported long lines and technical glitches on Monday, the first day of early voting in the state. Many voters lined up before polls opened statewide and waited hours to cast a ballot. Throughout the day, Georgians lined up at community centers, retrofitted museums and other precincts overwhelmed by the number of voters anxious to cast a ballot on the first day of early voting.

Cobb County residents stand in line at the Smyrna Community Center after polls closed on the first day of early voting on Monday. The wait time peaked at five hours before the pace picked up in the afternoon. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Election workers at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena dealt with early technical issues that forced them to reboot the voter check-in system Monday morning, which worsened the wait at a site where many lined up before the polls opened. The wait time dipped to less than 15 minutes by the afternoon at the state’s largest voting site where more than 300 machines are set up.

State, county officials and election rights organizations attributed the lengthy waits Monday to the heightened interest in a pivotal election, keeping people socially distanced, many people freed up for the Columbus Day holiday and new poll workers adjusting to processing voters on what is expected to be the biggest test of Georgia’s voting equipment between now and the end of general election voting Nov. 3.

Biden and the supporters who joined her at the get-out-the-vote rally had to be happy with the response Monday, if not the long lines that once again attracted a harsh national spotlight on Georgia’s ability to run a smooth election. Georgians also stood in line for hours to vote during the June 9 primary election and the secretary of state hoped it learned from the experience.

Former Second Lady Jill Biden calls on Georgians to get to the polls and cast their votes. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

More than 5 million Georgians are expected to cast their ballots in person or by mail for this election.

Jill Biden offered a message for voters stuck in long lines: Stick it out until your vote is counted.

“I want everyone to drop off your ballot today,” Biden said to the crowd of masked supporters standing inside hula hoops spaced six feet apart in a Decatur parking lot. “I want everyone to, if you don’t have one, make a plan to vote early, and then get involved. I know you’re busy. I know that. I know you’re stretched so thin, but this election is too important not to do every single thing we can. This is it, Georgia. There are no do overs.”

Bernstein said she’s planning to go back next week, and she’ll clear out a bigger chunk of her day in case the lines are still long.

“It was a little upsetting, honestly, that I had to leave and that it was taking so long, but I think it’s because of COVID and the cleaning methods they’re doing and making sure it’s safe, that was obviously going to take a little longer,” she said. “I just kind of kind of wish I would have been able to go this morning. I’m a little discouraged by it, but I’m going to definitely go back out. I hope other people will go and vote and wait in the line and bring water and a book.”

Sarah Bernstein and daughter Harper Adkins-Bernstein wait to see Jill Biden speak in Decatur. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

A spokesman for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the staff anticipated a large turnout on Monday and during the remaining three weeks of early voting through Election Day. 

“Georgia is seeing record turnout for early voting because of excitement and enthusiasm of the upcoming election. Long lines are to be expected — voters need to be aware of all of their options including three weeks of early voting, no excuse absentee and in-person voting day of the election,” spokesman Walter Jones said. 

The last Democrat to take Georgia in a presidential race was Bill Clinton in 1992, but polls show former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump in a statistical dead heat in Georgia. Turning the state blue would put Trump’s path to the White House on shaky ground, and Trump and his family are competing for the state’s 16 electoral votes with visits of their own.

The president visited Atlanta late last month, following his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence, who stopped by in separate visits earlier in September. Donald Trump Jr. visited Savannah and Kennesaw on Monday.

Georgia’s emergence as a battleground state gained credence in 2018 after years of false starts when the Democrat’s nominee for governor Stacey Abrams came within about 50,000 votes of taking the job now held by Gov. Brian Kemp.

“We know that if we deliver Georgia, we deliver America,” Abrams said at the Decatur rally Monday.

A Democratic win in Georgia will not come easily, said Trump Victory spokeswoman Savannah Viar.

“Parachuting surrogates into Georgia at the last minute isn’t a winning strategy, and Joe Biden will learn that the hard way in 22 days.” she said. “Our around-the-clock field efforts combined with President Trump’s pro-growth, pro-America message will keep Georgia red come November 3rd.” 

Abrams counted the long lines reported from counties around Georgia Monday as a positive sign for Democrats.

“Georgia Democrats are showing up across the state,” she said. “We have lines across the state, and we want to make sure those are lines of enthusiasm, lines that predict the future of the state of Georgia.”

A blue shift is in Georgia’s future if Democrats can turn out voters, said Stacey Abrams Monday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

After spending 2 1/2 hours waiting in line to vote in Cobb County Monday, Quentin Campbell’s advice to others planning to vote in-person is to be patient and perhaps bring a book to read to pass the time.

Like thousands of his fellow Georgians, the 57-year-old Campbell said he feels most comfortable showing up to the polls to vote even with the long waits during the pandemic.

Voters showed up to Georgia polling places with absentee ballots in hand, ready to cancel plans to mail in their ballots in order to vote in person. That contributed to delays that slowed the process, along with sanitizing protocols and precinct workers unfamiliar with the new voting equipment.

More than 1.5 million Georgians requested absentee ballots so far and after the marred June 9 primary the secretary of state’s office created an online portal as a new option.  More than 400,000 Georgians have already returned absentee ballots.

Many Georgians trying to vote worried that their absentee ballots had not arrived by Monday so they decided to come out to vote, said Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.

Some problems were predictable after the messy June 9 primary election and state election officials should have done more to prevent them from reoccurring, she said in a conference call with other voting rights groups Monday evening.

They encouraged people to report problems they experienced while trying to vote and to make sure they cast a ballot even though many residents are cynical about the process.

People who might be scared away voting by mail can still deposit their ballots at drop boxes located in many counties, Butler said.

Still, in addition to adding an online portal for the absentee ballot requests, the secretary of state’s office tried to help counties recruit more poll workers to help handle the crush of voters in coming weeks.

While encouraging Georgia voters to participate as they did Monday, Abrams, Jill Biden and other supporters, including DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond and state Sen. Nikema Williams, praised Joe Biden as a compassionate, level-headed leader who understands the problems of other Americans.

Georgia Democrats also are ready to compete in races up and down the ballot, Abrams said.

“We’re going to send 16 electoral college votes on behalf of Joe Biden to Washington D.C., to make him the next president of the United States,” she said. “But Georgia, we believe in hospitality, so we’re not only going to give them 16 electoral college votes, we’re going to send them two U.S. senators, we’re going to send them more competitive congressional seats, and guess what, we’re gonna flip the State House.”

To do that, Georgia Democrats will need to encourage people who do not normally vote to cast their ballots.

Sonjui Kumar of Brookhaven is working to get out the vote in Georgia’s South Asian and Desi communities. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Sonjui Kumar of Brookhaven, who sits on the coordinating committee for South Asians for Biden Georgia chapter says getting out the vote among communities like hers could be key to flipping the state blue. If you are South Asian, there’s a good chance you have heard from someone like Kumar about the election by phone or text.

“We’ve been promoting the same messages that the Democratic Party has, but just geared towards our community, because a lot of our community tunes out,” she said. “But when they hear someone with a name like mine call them or someone that they know in the community call them and talk to them about voting, they’re more engaged.”

Georgia’s races will likely be close, whichever way they fall, and Democrats can’t afford to not reach out to any possible voters, Kumar said.

“South Asians, we’re about 150,000 voters in Georgia, and that’s like, the margin of error,” she said. “But you know, Stacey only lost by 55,000 votes, and South Asians, they’re Democrats. So they tend to vote at, 80-20, it depends on the election, vote Democrat, so if we can get our community out, we know they’re voting Democratic.”

Georgia Democrats stand in socially distanced hula hoops in a Decatur parking lot a they await former Second Lady Jill Biden. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

 

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.
Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.