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Georgia counties cut back early voting sites ahead of Senate runoffs, alarming voting rights advocates

Civil rights and voting rights groups warned that the reduction will particularly harm Black and Latino voters.
Image: Juli?n Castro Campaigns With Georgia Senate Candidate Jon Ossoff For Runoff Election
People attend a rally with former Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro and Jon Ossoff, Democratic candidate for the Senate, on Dec. 7, 2020, in Lilburn, Ga.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Four of the 10 most populous counties in Georgia are reducing the number of locations where people can vote early in the state’s Senate runoff races, prompting outcry from civil rights and voting rights organizations.

In Cobb County, the state’s third most populous county with more than 760,000 residents, election officials have announced five early voting locations, fewer than half of the 11 used for early voting ahead of last month's general election.

Advocates warned that the reduction of early voting sites will particularly harm Black and Latino voters in the state by making it harder to access the polls.

“We are especially concerned that these closures will be harmful to Cobb County’s Black and Latinx voters because many of the locations are in Black and Latinx communities,” a group of advocates, including Georgia branches of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a letter Monday to local officials, calling on them to maintain 11 early voting sites for the runoff. They included a map that showed how most of the early voting locations are in areas with a higher shares of Black voters.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler said she didn't have the staff to run more early voting sites.

Turnout in runoff races is typically far lower than it is in general elections, but the stakes are much higher this time as party control of the U.S. Senate will be decided by the state's two Senate contests Jan. 5.

If both Democratic candidates, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, are victorious, Democrats will control the chamber with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaking vote. But if either Republican, Sen. David Perdue or Sen. Kelly Loeffler, wins, the Senate remains in GOP hands, an outcome with consequences for President-elect Joe Biden's first-term agenda.

Early voting was hugely popular in Georgia's November election, in which the vast majority of voters cast a ballot by mail or in-person early.

"It's deeply concerning," Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on MSNBC when asked about the reductions reported by NBC News. "Clearly there is an attempt to make it even more difficult in the state of Georgia to vote."

Cobb, which includes suburbs of Atlanta, is a critical county for Democrats, who will need to rack up high margins of voters in more urban areas to compete in the traditionally red state that Biden narrowly flipped blue. In Cobb County, Biden beat President Donald Trump by 14 points, according to county election results, playing a key role in his statewide win. Ossoff and Warnock lead Perdue and Loeffler in the county by 10 points and 12 points, respectively.

In Cobb County, people waited for hours during early voting this fall, amid high turnout.

Early voting in Georgia — also known as “advance voting” — begins three weeks before the election. For the Jan. 5 runoff, early voting will start Dec. 14.

Some large counties are planning for the same number of early voting sites as they had in the November general election. Two of the state’s two largest counties, DeKalb and Gwinnett, will both have the same number of early voting sites in the runoff as they did in the general election. Others are cutting back.

Chatham County, the fifth most populous county with nearly 300,000 residents, will have five early voting location, down from six earlier this fall, according to information posted on the county’s website. County results show that Biden won by more than 18 points in Chatham, while the Democratic Senate candidates had at least a 17-point lead over the Republican incumbents.

Forsyth County, the eighth most populous county with more than 244,000 residents, will have five early voting locations, down from 11 ahead of the November election. Trump won that county by 22 points, with the Republican Senate candidates enjoying double-digit margins, too.

Hall County, the tenth most populous county with just over 200,000 residents, will have four early voting sites, down from eight. Trump won Hall by 43 percentage points, with Senate Republican candidates dominating in the Senate races there, too.

Asked about the cuts, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office said counties have control over their own election administration.

“They set their budgets and manage turnout of voters accordingly,” Jordan Fuchs, deputy secretary of state, said.

County officials contacted by NBC News did not respond immediately to requests for comment, but budgets may be a driving force in some closures. Georgia’s counties just paid for two recounts, including one requested by the Trump campaign, according to election officials.