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Voter turnout soared in Georgia despite massive primary day problems

Democrats cast close to a million votes in the Senate primary, more than triple the number in the 2016 primary.
Voters wait in line on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta.
Voters wait in line on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta.Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images

Despite massive problems at the voting booth, Democratic turnout in Georgia's primaries skyrocketed — with three times as many votes cast in the Senate primary as in 2016.

With 91 percent of the vote in as of Friday, nearly 960,000 voters had cast ballots in the Democratic Senate primary race won by Jon Ossoff, compared to 310,000 who voted in the Senate primary in 2016.

The Democratic turnout was also higher than it was in the gubernatorial primary in 2018, which saw 550,000 ballots cast.

"This was extraordinarily high turnout for a primary — way beyond what we've seen in previous primary elections," Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Atlanta's Emory University, told NBC News.

"The bottom line is that, despite all of the problems at the polls on Tuesday, it appears that there was a big increase in turnout over 2018, especially on the Democratic side," Abramowitz said. "And over 900,000 votes cast in the Democratic Senate primary blows the 310,000 votes cast in the 2016 Democratic Senate primary out of the water."

Voting rights groups have called Tuesday's primary a disaster, with voters across the state, particularly in counties where the majority of residents are not white, faced issues including long lines, problems with voting machines and a lack of available ballots.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, said he was launching an investigation into the "unacceptable" problems, which he blamed on local election officials in mostly minority counties.

Those officials blamed Raffensperger, saying the responsibility to train, prepare and equip election staff to deal with new election machinery used on Tuesday was his.

"Each one's trying to blame the other, but I think they're both really responsible for a lot of the problems," Abramowitz said, noting that Raffensperger selected the cumbersome new voting machines, but local officials had a duty to make sure their poll workers knew how to use it — an effort the secretary of state's office is supposed to oversee. He added that some of the difficulties were likely unavoidable because fewer polling places had been opened and a number of poll workers had quit because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Abramowitz credited the rise in the overall statewide votes to Raffensperger, saying his decision to mail every registered active voter an application for an absentee ballot and encourage Georgians to vote by mail because of the pandemic resulted in the surge in turnout, especially among Democrats. The state also had early voting.

Exact breakdowns for how voters cast their ballot aren't yet available, but Abramowitz said "a large majority of votes were cast by absentee ballot. "

President Donald Trump has complained about a similar effort to send voters absentee ballot applications in Michigan, where both the governor and secretary of state are Democrats.

Turnout for Republicans appeared to be not as strong in the primary, but there were no statewide contested races. Incumbent Sen. David Perdue, who ran unopposed, had received about 457,000 votes as of Friday, but the secretary of state's office reported Saturday that total was up to over 924,000 with 100 percent of precincts reporting.

In 2016, 577,000 Republicans voted in the Senate primary, which was won by then-incumbent Johnny Isakson with over 477,000 votes. Isakson has since retired.

In the presidential primary, which the state typically holds on a different date than the state races but was held on the same date this year because of the pandemic, President Donald Trump ran unopposed and netted about 866,000 votes.

More than 1.2 million Republicans voted in the state's contested presidential primary in 2016, which Trump won with just over 500,000 votes.

On the Democratic side, with 94 percent of precincts reporting, over 900,000 voted in 2020, compared to a total of more than 761,000 in 2016. Former Vice President Joe Biden won the state with more than 773,000 votes as of Saturday, while Hillary Clinton won the state with over 543,000 votes in 2016.