Early voting Georgians turning out, casting ballots in record numbers

A short line of voters queues up during the first week of early voting to check in at the State Farm Arena precinct, the state's largest polling station. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

More than 1.4 million Georgians cast ballots in the first week of early voting  in the 2020 general election so far, more than a third of 2016’s total turnout, and more than two weeks remain until voting ends Election Day.

Last Monday, nearly 127,000 Georgians cast their ballot, breaking the record for first day early voting in Georgia history. Experts predict the record-breaking turnout to continue through Election Day Nov. 3.

“We’re going to burst turnout this fall, in November, it’s going to be a record for Georgia, overall turnout, and definitely early voting. I just think it’s going to be a huge turnout year,” said Kennesaw State University’s director of the School of Government and International Affairs, Kerwin Swint.

Much of that turnout is coming from the state’s most populated urban areas. Voters in three counties, Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties, have turned in more than 100,000 ballots each, and Gwinnett County comes in a close fourth with voters filing 96,000 ballots. The four counties lead both in absentee ballots and in-person early votes.

Each of those counties voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Stacey Abrams in 2018, and poll watchers are keeping their eyes on the coveted suburban voters to see whether they will favor this year’s Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I think a big test will be to see if the suburbs continue to trend blue or not, or if, because it’s a presidential year and turnout is up, and because there’s a lot of Trump support in Georgia, that sort of interrupts the trending blue in the suburbs, or not,’” Swint said. “I think the Handel-McBath race will be a really good indicator of that.”

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns have come to the Atlanta suburbs in recent weeks. Though Trump lost Cobb, Gwinnett, and Fulton in 2016, those were also the three counties that gave him the largest numbers of votes in the state, and his broad support in much of rural Georgia pushed him over the top to keep Clinton from claiming Georgia’s 16 electoral votes.

Young voters and voters of color

Young and first-time voters as well as Black and brown voters, all of whom skew Democratic, could be key to swinging the election this year, and Democrats point to big gains in their registration as a potential sign of victory to come. The number of Georgians registered to vote has increased 8% since 2018, and of those, 49% are people of color and 46% are under 30.

But young and first-time voters tend to turn out less reliably than older voters, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

In 2016, Georgia youth voted for Democratic candidates by a 30-point margin in the heavily Republican state, but 46% of young Georgia registered voters did not cast a ballot in 2016.

“Who Democrats have targeted have been, essentially, groups that have not voted that much, so they’re trying to expand the list of registered voters,” Bullock said. “But a person who was new on the list is somewhat less likely to vote than a person who has done it in the past, and then Democrats also targeted young voters, and young voters have much poorer turnout rates than their grandparents.”

Youth voter registration and turnout beat the national average in Georgia in 2018, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

So far this year in Georgia, 21.8% of 2020 early voters did not cast a ballot in 2016, but other signs point to a lull in youth enthusiasm nationally.

Nationwide, voters between 18 and 29 make up 17.2% of registered voters, and they requested 16.4% of ballots, but that age group is only responsible for 7% of mail-in ballots returned and 7.8% of early votes, according to an analysis from Bluelabs and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

First-time voters are also not meeting their proportion of ballots returned, the study found. First-time voters made up 12.4% of ballots requested nationally, but only submitted 4.5% of mail ballots cast so far.

Many Georgia counties with a high proportion of young people who do not vote also have a large population of Black youth, Tufts’ researchers report.

There were 33 counties in Georgia where more than half of young people registered to vote did not cast a ballot in 2016. In 18 of them, 40% or more of young residents are Black.

But Black voters, who also tend to support Democratic candidates, appear to be coming out in greater numbers in metro Atlanta counties. Statewide, Black voters make up 13% of active voters, according to state data, but cast 30% of early in-person votes, according to data compiled by University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald.

In Cobb County, African American voters make up about 11% of active voters, but as of Friday, more than 26% of early voters in Cobb were Black, according to Georgia Votes, a project run by statistician Ryan Anderson.

Part of the enthusiasm comes from big local races, including for the Cobb County Sheriff and chair of the Cobb County Commission, but Trump’s low approval among African Americans also contributes, said Jaquelyn Bettadapur, chair of the Cobb County Democratic Party.

“In addition, there’s the top of ticket, with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the red meat dog whistles that keep coming out of the Trump administration, people are hearing those loud and clear, and they know they have to vote to to combat this and set us on a path towards more unity and progress,” she said.

The disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on communities of color and a summer fraught with tension over multiple high-profile shootings of African Americans may also be pushing Black Georgians to the polls, said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a voter registration group.

“In light of the fact that at one point 80% of the people who were hospitalized due to COVID were people of color, and 50% of the people who died in the state were people of color, it very much feels like a life and death moment for Georgians of color, for Black Georgians,” she said. “So when you start to think about the pandemic, this summer’s racial justice uprisings, the rebellion that we lived through, we were getting lots of questions like, ‘are the protesters going to show up to vote?’ and then we had historic levels of participation during the June primaries. And I think that we’re going to see the 2.0 version of that in the general.”

In another sense, it is not surprising that Democratic groups are turning out in large numbers, because the party out of power tends to be the first to show up to the polls, said Mark Rountree, Republican strategist and president of Landmark Communications political consulting group. That was true for the Tea Party, the Occupy movement and the coalition of opposition to Trump, he said.

“That group is going to vote earlier in the early voting process, because they’re the ones who are upset, and people who are upset usually are the ones first in line to vote,” he said. “Hate is a bigger driver than love when it comes to politics and turnout, which is why candidates beat each other up.”

Absentee voters

The proliferation of mail-in voting may also be favoring Democrats early in the race. The number of mail-in ballots this year is more than 600% higher than it was in 2016, according to Georgia Votes. Democrats hold a 9% advantage over Republicans when it comes to mail ballots returned, though that advantage drops to 3.9% when looking at early in-person votes.

Trump may bear some responsibility in reducing mail ballots among Republicans this year.

“This would suggest that maybe those folks are listening to the president saying don’t trust the mail and go do it yourself,” Bulloch said. “That is a reversal from what has been the pattern. The pattern up to 2020 has been that Republicans are more likely to take advantage of mail-in ballots than were Democrats. Democrats were more likely to go and vote early in person than Republicans, but there were far fewer people who mailed in ballots prior to 2020.”

The Democratic Party has been pushing mail-in ballots this year, while President Trump has claimed without evidence that they could be manipulated to change the election’s outcome.

“Democrats are voting in heavier numbers because they have been promoting absentee ballot voting, whereas President Trump really mismanaged his messaging on absentee ballot, mail voting,” Rountree said.

“It’s deeply unfortunate that this has happened from a Republican strategist point of view, because absentee ballot mail is a generally pro-Republican vehicle,” he said. “That is not going to help. So what you’re going to see is a lot of Republicans winning big on Election Day, a lot of Republican candidates will win very big on Election Day. The problem is, probably 70% of the state is going to have voted by Election Day.”

That could lead to a situation where Republican candidates show relatively strong leads on election night which begin to dwindle over the following days as absentee ballots are counted, he said.

The Georgia counties with the highest number of absentee ballots requested per capita are largely Democratic, according to data compiled by University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald, but the counties with the most returned mail ballots per capita are mostly smaller counties that went big for Trump in 2016.

While metropolitan Atlanta delivers the most ballots, a vote is a vote no matter where you cast it, and in 2016, 60% of ballots cast in Georgia came from counties with fewer than 100,000 votes.

Outside of the state’s metro areas and the middle Georgia Black belt, counties that went for Trump in 2016 are among the places with the highest turnout so far this year.

Of the 25 Georgia counties with the highest per capita turnout in 2020, 19 went for Trump in 2016. Greene County, where Trump took 62% of the vote last time around, leads the state in per capita early voting. More than 36% of registered voters there have already made their selections.