Fired-up voters across Georgia descended on polling sites in record-breaking numbers Monday, the first day of early, in-person balloting, as state and local officials reported glitches with the state’s new and troubled voting system.
In Atlanta and its suburbs, long lines of socially distanced voters began forming before dawn, some waiting for as long as eight hours to vote, after a federal judge rejected an attempt to replace the $107 million system with paper ballots until its problems could be sorted out.
“We thought we were going to get here early,” Norman Robinson III said as he stood in a line snaking for more than a half-mile outside his early voting site at the Gallery at South DeKalb in Decatur, near Atlanta. Still, he said, “it’s an awesome thing.”
Robinson, an educator specializing in math, science and technology, added: “My parents were jailed in college during the 1960s for exercising their rights to vote. This is in my blood to make sure I honor and continue their fight for voices to be heard.”
It would end up taking Robinson more than four hours to vote, an exercise that became a test of endurance for many others Monday, as they steadfastly remained in long lines even though it was just the first day of nearly three weeks of early voting.
In Gwinnett County, waiting times stretched as long as eight hours, according to a county website. Nabilah Islam, a politician and activist in Gwinnett who visited two polling places for the Democratic Party, accused the county of failing to provide an adequate number of early voting locations.
“It was clear that nobody was really prepared for it,” she said.
Despite the hardships, voting rights groups saw a silver lining.
Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, called it an “outpouring,” adding: “People are very energized. Georgia this year is a place where your vote matters.”
Elections officials acknowledged technical glitches around the state but said the long lines were primarily a result of voter turnout that increased partly because many voters had the day off for Columbus Day.
“Georgia is seeing record turnout for early voting because of excitement and enthusiasm about the upcoming election,” said Walter Jones, a spokesman for Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state.
More than 126,000 voters had cast ballots by the end of the day, Raffensperger’s office said.
But the snaking lines were not entirely a result of voter fervor. As hundreds lined up to vote in metropolitan Atlanta, problems emerged with electronic equipment at State Farm Arena, according to Jessica Corbitt-Dominguez, a spokeswoman for Fulton County, which includes the city.
Voters complained on Twitter of 90-minute delays as multiple machines had to be rebooted.
Aklima Khondoker, Georgia director for All Voting Is Local, a voting rights group, said that electronic poll pads on which voters check in had created problems around the state. “We’ve seen over 10 counties where this is happening,” she said.
A variety of technical issues had been the topic of litigation in which a voting rights group, the Coalition for Good Governance, argued that the system should be set aside in favor of paper ballots. In a ruling Sunday night, Judge Amy Totenberg of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia acknowledged the system had problems but said it was too late to revamp the voting system.
The state did not have the capacity “to turn on a dime and switch to a full-scale hand-marked paper ballot system,” she wrote, declining to make the shift recommended by the Coalition for Good Governance.
The decision came as battles over ballot access intensified across the country. On Sunday, California election officials announced that they were investigating the placement of unofficial drop boxes for mail-in balloting in Los Angeles, Fresno and Orange counties — illegal sites that could be used to identify and eliminate the ballots of unsuspecting voters.
Georgia has been the arena for many voting rights skirmishes recently, but the latest problems were less about politics and more about technology.
The state’s new voting system is a hybrid. The machines do not actually store ballots; voters fill out their preferences on the touch screen, the results are printed out and scanned, and then they are stored in locked boxes. The system also relies on electronic poll books that replace old-fashioned paper poll books.
Problems in the June primary were attributed partly to the new voting system but also to errors caused by poorly trained poll workers and a shortage of workers because many had decided to remain home over fears of the coronavirus.
“For this to work, four different machines have to work correctly,” said Young, noting the system’s complexity. Since the state’s primary elections, the ACLU has been involved in recruiting 2,000 technology-savvy poll workers who understand the system, she said.
Encouraging people to vote early, Jill Biden, wife of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, appeared Monday in DeKalb County, near Atlanta, with Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia lawmaker who founded a voting rights organization.
“I want everyone, if you don’t already have one, to make a plan to vote,” Biden told a crowd of people spread out in a parking lot. “One vote could make the difference between winning and losing a precinct. One precinct could win this state, and this state could decide our future for generations to come.”
With polling showing Joe Biden locked in a statistical tie with President Donald Trump in Georgia, Abrams said the steadfastly red state was trending blue.
“We’re going to get there this time,” she said, noting the registration of 800,000 new voters since 2018, 40% of them under the age of 30.
Jill Biden made another appearance Monday in Columbus, Georgia. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, also had two stops in the state Monday.
“Have you voted yet today? If you haven’t done it by the end of the day, do it tomorrow,” the younger Trump told a crowd of the president’s supporters at the Forest City Gun Club in Savannah. “Early voting has started now, and we need you guys out there.”
Donald Trump Jr. addressed another group Monday evening in Kennesaw.
Georgians did not seem to need much coaxing to show up at the polls, however. As of Monday, 1,602,352 people had requested absentee ballots, and 439,018 of those requests had already been accepted, according to Raffensperger’s office.
Voters also appeared to be determined. Robinson said the line kept growing longer and longer at his polling place, situated in a vacant department store. He said the backup was caused partly by glitches with the computerized poll books, the same equipment cited as a problem at State Farm Arena.
“I was proud of people because they weren’t getting discouraged,” he said.
In Gwinnett County, an online system notified voters that waiting times there were also as long as eight hours at some early voting locations.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said it had received 368 calls of complaint, mostly involving long lines.
Harold Franklin, southeast regional vice chair for the organization, said that in both Cobb and Fulton counties, several cars belonging to voters were towed while their owners waited in line to vote.
In Cobb County, Everlean Rutherford, a government employee, said around 6:30 p.m. Monday that she had been waiting in line for eight hours to vote. She decided to remain, rather than return another day, because she had the day off.
“This is the best day for me to get it done and have my vote counted,” Rutherford said, describing a party atmosphere at her polling place — with pizza delivered by a local restaurant and water provided by Abrams’ organization, Fair Fight.
“I wish I had brought a chair,” said Rutherford, 39, of Kennesaw.
“One of the poll workers said this is the most that they’ve ever had for early voting,” she said.