Georgia breaks turnout record for first day of early voting

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Hundreds of people wait in line for early voting on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Marietta, Georgia. Eager voters have waited six hours or more in the former Republican stronghold of Cobb County, and lines have wrapped around buildings in solidly Democratic DeKalb County. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)

ATLANTA (AP) — 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 saw 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.”

It was not immediately clear how many counties observed the holiday resulting in a one-day delay to the start of early voting.

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.

Lines were already forming again Tuesday morning. An online wait time tracker tool in Gwinnett County, a populous suburban area northeast of Atlanta, showed waits exceeding three hours at two of the county’s early voting locations.

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.

A flood of election-related lawsuits have been filed 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.

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