Cobb County, Georgia, will add two more locations for the final week of early voting in the Senate runoff races after voting rights and civil rights advocates criticized changes they said would harm Black and Latino voters' access to the polls.
In a news release announcing the move Wednesday, the county said it was "responding to concerns" over its initial plan to reduce the number of early voting locations to five sites for the entirety of the advance voting period ahead of the Jan. 5 runoffs, down from 11 that were operational ahead of November's general election.
Cobb County is the state’s third most populous county, with more than 760,000 residents.
There will now be five sites for the first two weeks of early voting and seven sites for the final week, when the county adds back sites in Smyrna and Marietta. Staff will be immediately trained to run those two sites, according to the release.
The county will also move a planned early voting site at the Ward Recreation Center to the Ron Anderson Community Center. Both are in the city of Powder Springs, but the new site is in an area with a greater share of Black voters, according to the groups that protested the reductions.
Those groups, which include 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.
"While these closures are likely to adversely affect many Cobb County voters, 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," they said Monday.
Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler blamed staffing issues for the cuts.
“Between COVID, the workload, and the holidays, we have simply run out of people,” Eveler said in Wednesday's release. “Many workers told us they spent three weeks working 14- or 15-hour days and they will not do that again. We simply don’t have time to bring in and train up more workers to staff the number of locations we had for November.”
The county also defended the cuts by saying that voters would spend less time at the polls in a runoff with just two races on the ballot, whereas the general election had more contests for voters to deliberate.
“No, it's not a form of voter suppression, it's a form of our staffing capabilities. I mean, we're doing what we can with what we have," Cobb County Communications Director Ross Cavitt told NBC News.
"We've never had 11 open before. What happened for the November election was very unusual for us, we knew there was a long ballot, we knew there was intense interest in this election, and we knew because of Covid that a lot of people would want to take advantage of absentee or advanced voting," he continued. "So what you're seeing for this runoff is pretty much what we normally have — five advanced voting locations around the count."
In Cobb County, which includes suburbs of Atlanta, President-elect Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump by 14 points, according to county election results, playing a key role in his statewide win. The state's two Democratic Senate hopefuls, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, lead Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in the county by 10 points and 12 points, respectively.
The stakes of the Jan. 5 races are high. If both Democratic candidates are victorious, Democrats will control the chamber with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote. But if either Republican wins, the Senate remains in GOP hands, an outcome with consequences for Biden's first-term agenda.
Cobb was one of four sizable Georgia counties to reduce the number of early voting sites.
Forsyth County downsized from 11 to five voting sites. County Republicans celebrated the closures in a Facebook post Tuesday, saying they’d attended a recent meeting of election officials to defend against a Democratic “scheme” to add more hours or sites. In the post, they argued without evidence that additional early voting opportunities would have created opportunity for "more fraud."
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Trump won Forsyth County by 22 points, with the Republican Senate candidates enjoying double-digit margins, too.
Many state Republican lawmakers, including the Georgia GOP, have repeated Trump’s repeated, false claims that voter fraud robbed him of a second term, even as election officials, outside experts and Trump's own attorney general, William Barr, say there was no widespread voter fraud.
On Tuesday, Georgia Republicans called for tossing the no-excuse absentee voting system they created in 2005. Early voting was hugely popular in Georgia's November election, particularly among Democrats, and Biden flipped the state blue for the first time since 1992.
Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has also argued in favor of additional voting restrictions, but he's reiterated that there is no evidence of widespread fraud or a stolen election.
“I know there are people that are convinced the election was fraught with problems, but the evidence, the actual evidence, the facts tell us a different story,” he said Monday.