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Early voting begins in Georgia with long lines, high turnout

Race is one of the strongest predictors of how long a person waits in line to vote, research shows.
Image: Voters line up to cast their ballots for the upcoming presidential elections in Atlanta
Voters line up to cast their ballots for the upcoming presidential elections in Atlanta on Oct. 12, 2020.Chris Aluka Berry / Reuters

Early voting kicked off in Georgia on Monday with hourslong waits at some polling locations amid what election officials said was a record high turnout.

Kathleen Campbell, 31, was at her polling place, Atlanta's High Museum of Art, around 8:10 a.m. ET. It took more than 2 hours to work her way to the front of the line, she said, speaking to NBC News by phone around 11 a.m. as she was about to be allowed in to cast her ballot.

"I have voted before, always in person and I’ve never waited this long which I’m hoping is actually a good sign for this year’s election turnout," Campbell said. "I’m feeling really optimistic at how seriously people are going to take this election."

"Everyone is patiently waiting to get to the polls inside and I don’t think I’ve seen one person without a mask on," she added.

Waits were even longer at the main polling station for Cobb County in Marietta, with some voters telling the local NBC affiliate they'd been on line for more than five hours.

One Cobb County voter, Everlean Rutherford, tweeted out a video of a line that stretched across a mall and through a large parking lot.

"This is going to be an election where there are unprecedented numbers of people voting. I love it. Get out and vote!" she said in an interview. Despite the lengthy lines, Rutherford said, "everyone is so nice. I’m talking to people around me. I hear other groups talking and socializing. Some people have chairs and sitting in them."

Hours later, she was still in line, and her mood had soured.

"I went from ‘yay love seeing all these people early voting’ to ‘I’ve been here over four hours, hungry and ready to go’. Yeah this is voter suppression. It should never take this long to vote. Especially early voting," she tweeted.

She said in a subsequent tweet she'd successfully voted at 7:43 p.m. — after 9 hours and 39 minutes on line.

“We'd prepared as much as we could, but there’s only so much space in the rooms and parking in the parking lot. We’re maxing out both of those," Cobb County Elections and Registration Director Janine Eveler told The Associated Press.

By 5 p.m. ET in Gwinnett County, the county website said the shortest wait at one of the county’s nine polling stations was one hour and 15 minutes. The longest was 4 and a half hours.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's office told NBC affiliate 11 Alive on Monday that “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.”

The high turnout was likely helped by Monday's Columbus Day holiday. However, similarly long waits had marred the state's primary in June.

Kristen Clarke, president and CEO of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights group, had called the primary "a catastrophe." At the time, Raffensperger, a Republican, called for an investigation into the issues.

Nearly 2.4 million voters turned out for the June primary, a record.

Local election officials said there weren't any significant issues with the state's cumbersome voting machines Monday, but noted unusually high turnout. Democrats had been urging people to vote by mail because of the pandemic, but President Donald Trump has repeatedly railed against mail-in voting, falsely saying it's prone to fraud.

Aunna Dennis, executive director of the voter advocacy organization Common Cause Georgia, said what happened Monday was a "math problem."

"A lot of people voted on the first day," and "Covid-19 precautions means each voter takes longer," Dennis said, adding that there were also reports of machine problems and a shortage of paper ballots that could be used as backups. "That needs to change," she said.

Richard L. Barron, director of the Fulton County Board of Elections and Registration, said he was hopeful the surge in early voting would help alleviate the crush of voters on Nov. 3.

"What we are trying to do is drive 80 percent of the voters to vote before Election Day" with "some combination of early voting and absentee by mail," Barron said. "That will make the lines manageable," he continued, adding that the county is opening additional polling places for November.

At Atlanta's State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, officials said a "glitch" delayed the start of voting by about 40 minutes.

"We experienced a small technical glitch in the system. Technicians were on site and worked as quickly as possible to resolve the matter. Then Atlanta Hawks, which is known for its customer service immediately went into action to assist in making the voters comfortable," Regina Waller, a senior public information officer for Fulton County, said in a statement.

Image: Voters cast their ballots for the upcoming presidential elections in Atlanta
Voters cast their ballots for the upcoming presidential elections in Atlanta on Oct. 12, 2020.Chris Aluka Berry / Reuters

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin told reporters, "We're getting very positive feedback" after the issue was resolved.

Over 300 people were lined up at a Gwinnett County Election Board in Lawrenceville about a half hour before it opened.

"I did expect a long line, but I arrived 30 minutes before open, and I’m still waiting three hours later," one voter in line, Melissa McGuire, said in an interview. "Many, many more people than normal," she added.

Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, counties with large nonwhite populations, all reported long lines.

Studies show that race is one of the strongest predictors of how long a person waits in line to vote.

In 2019, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Chicago used smartphone data to quantify the racial disparity in waiting times at polls across the country. Residents of entirely-black neighborhoods waited 29 percent longer to vote and were 74 percent more likely to spend more than 30 minutes voting.

Similarly, nonwhite voters are seven times more likely than white voters to wait in line for more than an hour to vote, according to a 2017 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Stephen Pettigrew, who is a senior analyst for the NBC News Decision Desk. The reason, the study concluded, is because election officials send more resources to white polling precincts.

That can affect the electorate for years to come.

“Waiting in a line makes you less likely to turn out in subsequent elections,” Pettigrew said earlier this year, citing his research on that issue.

And mail voting, trusted less by voters of colors, has its own challenges: Black voters’ ballots are more likely to be rejected than ballots cast by white voters.