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Georgia shatters turnout record for first day of early voting

High turnout surpassed early voting in 2016 despite some of the state's polling places being closed for the Columbus Day holiday.
Hundreds of people wait in line for early voting in Marietta, Ga., on Oct. 12, 2020.Ron Harris / AP
/ Source: Associated Press

ATLANTA — More than 128,000 Georgians went to the polls Monday, a record for the first day of early voting in the state, according to the secretary of state's office.

The high turnout surpassed the nearly 91,000 votes cast on the first day of early voting in 2016 and left eager voters waiting in hours-long lines across the state to cast their ballots. Election officials and advocacy groups have been pushing people to vote early, either in person or by absentee ballot, in anticipation of record turnout and concerns about coronavirus exposure.

But some would-be voters turned up Monday only to find their county offices closed for the Columbus Day holiday. Effingham County resident Tony Grimes told WTOC-TV he took the day off work to vote and was frustrated to find the door locked at the county's main elections office.

“I see in Chatham County where they’re having lines forming for them to go and vote,” he told the television station. “So, they’re voting right now, and we aren’t able to.”

The secretary of state’s office said it received no votes Monday from 49 of the state’s 159 counties, but it wasn’t clear how many of those were closed for the holiday, spokesman Walter Jones said.

People can continue to vote early in person through Oct. 30. While voters must vote at their assigned polling place on Election Day, they can vote at any open polling place in the county where they live during early voting.

In Fulton County, the state's most populous county, close to 20,000 people voted in person on Monday, second only to the last day of early voting in 2016, when about 26,000 voted, county elections director Rick Barron told reporters. County election officials expect that more than 30,000 people will show up for the final day of early voting this year, and Barron encouraged people to vote on other days to avoid long lines.

Barron also encouraged people who have requested absentee ballots to go ahead and use those, submitting them by mail or in a drop box, rather than choosing instead to vote in person. When a person who's requested an absentee ballot shows up at the polls it takes longer to process them because the absentee ballot must be canceled, contributing to longer lines, Barron said.

By Tuesday morning, about 1.6 million people had requested absentee ballots, according to the secretary of state's office. Of those, nearly 474,000 had been returned and accepted. Absentee and early votes are not counted until Election Day.

Long lines formed again Tuesday in some places. At least two counties, Cobb and Gwinnett in Atlanta's populous northern suburbs, have online wait time tracking tools. Gwinnett's tracker showed an eight-hour wait around midday at the main elections office and waits of one to two hours elsewhere. Cobb's tracker showed a wait of five hours at the county's main elections office.

With photos and videos of long lines Monday posted by news outlets and circulating widely on social media, some election integrity advocates and elected officials said it was evidence of voter suppression and called on election officials to take steps to take immediate action.

But others urged patience.

“Election officials have limited resources — especially during the pandemic,” Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California-Irvine, tweeted Monday night. “Great enthusiasm on the first day of voting leading to long lines does not necessarily mean there's a systemic problem. Let's give it a few days.”

Georgia's elections have drawn national scrutiny in recent years. That was renewed in June when the state's primary election was marred by long lines caused by equipment problems and high turnout, as well as coronavirus-related consolidations of polling places and shortages of poll workers.

Concerns about voter disenfranchisement have resulted in a flood of election-related lawsuits seeking to have judges order changes.

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed in August by Democrats that asked him to order Georgia election officials to take steps to prevent long lines at the polls on Election Day. U.S. District Judge Michael Brown wrote in an order Tuesday that it appears election officials have taken steps to address the issues that previously caused long lines.

“It is possible, of course, these measures will ultimately prove insufficient and long lines will still arise,” he wrote. “But that is not the point; no one, including this Court, can guarantee short lines.”

Separately, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg late Monday declined to order Georgia polling places to increase the number of emergency paper ballots they have on hand to allow voting to continue if there are problems with electronic voting equipment.

Totenberg had previously instructed the secretary of state in an order last month to make sure county election officials and poll workers are trained on using emergency ballots and to “maintain a sufficient stock of emergency paper ballots.” A state election board rule says elections that include a federal race, “a sufficient amount of emergency paper ballots shall be at least 10% of the number of registered voters to a polling place.”

Totenberg's Monday ruling denies a request to require that each polling place have enough emergency paper ballots for 40% of the registered voters assigned to a polling place. Determining the precise details of election administration is the responsibility of state and local election officials, she wrote.

Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed reporting.