With the Nov. 3 elections just around the corner, Georgians are already heading to the polls in record-breaking numbers amid the dual challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the biggest test of the state’s new voting machines.
More than 2.4 million ballots had been cast by mail and in person during the early-voting period as of noon Friday, Oct. 23, marking around one-third of Georgia’s roughly 7.5 million registered voters.
Georgians are facing one of the most consequential elections in their lifetimes with a presidential contest, both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats, congressional, state and local offices all on the ballot, while state Democratic leaders are vying to flip the Georgia House for the first time since 2005.
Concerns over the virus, recent instances of long lines and doubts over the election’s integrity have driven unprecedented numbers of voters to cast absentee ballots and take advantage of the three-week early-voting period that started last week and ends next Friday.
Nearly 900,000 absentee ballots had been cast by noon Friday, Oct. 23, vastly more than the roughly 109,000 ballots cast at this point in the 2016 election. Add those numbers to the roughly 1.5 million in-person early votes logged so far and Georgia’s ballot count to date has exceeded this point in the 2016 election by 121%.
“We are working to make Georgia’s election system fair, voter-centric, smooth and uniform,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said at a recent news conference. “So far with the numbers, we are succeeding.”
Even so, thousands of voters in metro Atlanta and elsewhere in the state have endured hours-long waits in line at local polling places to vote early, echoing the lengthy queues Georgia saw in the June 9 primary elections and prompting worries over how voting for Election Day on Nov. 3 will fare.
And election officials have met with some technical issues involving the new machines including an overwhelmed check-in system that contributed to delays and a software glitch that wiped some candidates’ names from the ballot. Officials have said both issues were fixed.
County officials who manage the nuts-and-bolts of elections at the local level have pushed to staff up poll workers with adequate training in the new machines and implement sanitization practices amid the pandemic that aim to keep voters safe but have prolonged wait times.
In particular, delays have come as voters who requested absentee ballots but show up to vote in person must formally cancel their mail-in ballots before they can vote. That extra step has extended wait times in precincts across the state, according to local officials.
“That’s slowing things down a bit,” said Janine Eveler, director of the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration.
Eveler, like other county election chiefs, will have help from a temporary rule allowing election officials to start opening and processing absentee ballots as of this week. Those ballots can’t be tabulated yet, but officials agree the head start should relieve some counting pressure on Election Day.
Raffensperger and other officials are also expecting the three weeks of early voting with such large turnout will give poll workers ample preparation in how to run the new machines before Nov. 3. Lack of know-how at some polling places was a major factor in long lines seen during the June 9 primaries, according to officials.
Installed statewide earlier this year, the new $104 million voting machines from Dominion Voting Systems drew intense scrutiny well before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, largely from voting-rights groups pushing for Georgia to adopt an all-paper ballot system instead of touchscreens.
A lawsuit brought to halt use of the new machines for the 2020 elections prompted a federal judge to require paper backups of voter registration information at polling places to be available if the check-in equipment experiences glitches.
Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance that filed suit, is seeking the court’s intervention to require that certain precincts allow observers inside polling places so they can more closely monitor the machines’ performance for the rest of early voting and on Election Day.
“We think that in this next week, it’s going to be really important to try and gather evidence of what’s wrong,” Marks said in a recent interview. “We’re trying very hard to get in.”
Raffensperger has sought to assure quick technical assistance will be on hand for Election Day from the vendor Dominion as well as with backing from local companies that are helping provide tech support, donate plexiglass screens at polling places and purchase more absentee ballot drop-off boxes for counties.
With turnout expected to top 5 million voters, Raffensperger has called for more Georgians to cast ballots by mail or during early voting to help ease the bottleneck that could strain polling places on Election Day. So far, the state appears on track to have enough votes collected before Nov. 3 to make the upcoming election more manageable, Raffensperger said.
“That will be a manageable election,” Raffensperger said. “The more they vote early, the less there will be left on the playing field to show up on Election Day.”