Early in-person voting begins in Georgia Senate runoffs

Jeff Amy
Associated Press

Atlanta – What could be the main event in Georgia’s twin U.S. Senate runoffs – early in-person voting – got underway Monday, with many voters encountering shorter lines than they did during the first days of early voting for the general election.

More than half of the record 5 million votes in the Nov. 3 general election were cast during its two-week early voting period. Early in-person voting could be even more important in these Jan. 5 runoffs because of the short time frame for voters to request and send back ballots by mail, as the two races decide which party will control the U.S. Senate.

A sign in an Atlanta neighborhood on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, urges people to vote early in Georgia's two U.S. Senate races.

“It’s very important,” Democrat Raphael Warnock, who is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in one of the races, said Friday after a speech to labor union canvassers. “It’s how we won in the general and it’s how we’re going to win in the runoff.”

No one expects turnout to be as high in the Warnock-Loeffler contest or the race between U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. But Bernard Fraga, an Emory University professor who studies voting, said overall turnout could reach 4 million.

Online wait time trackers in three of the most populous counties in metro Atlanta showed short waits in most places Monday morning as blustery weather blew through the area. Exceptions were the main elections office in Cobb County, with a two-hour wait time, and a community recreation center in Gwinnett County, where the listed wait time was 90 minutes.

President Donald Trump has relentlessly pushed baseless claims of widespread fraud in the general election. In an overnight tweet just hours before early voting started, he continued his ongoing attack on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, pushing him to take action or risk harming Perdue and Loeffler’s chances.

“What a fool Governor @BrianKempGA of Georgia is,” the president tweeted. “Could have been so easy, but now we have to do it the hard way. Demand this clown call a Special Session and open up signature verification, NOW. Otherwise, could be a bad day for two GREAT Senators on January 5th.”

Gabriel Sterling, election system implementation manager for the Georgia Secretary of State, said he expects a surge of people Monday. More than 125,000 people cast ballots in October on the first day of early in-person voting before the general election. Some Atlanta-area early voting sites in October and November saw people lined up for hours.

One question is how many mail-in ballots will be cast in the election. By Friday, 1.2 million mail-in ballots had been requested and 200,000 returned. In the general election, Democrat Joe Biden won 65% of the 1.3 million absentee ballots that were returned in Georgia, a record fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Fraga said it’s possible that mail-in ballots, if anything, will be even more favorable for Democrats in the runoff because of attacks on the integrity of mail-in voting by Trump and many Georgia Republicans.

“I don’t think Republicans are going to be voting by mail even at as high of rates as they did in November,” Fraga said.

That means early in-person voting, which Trump narrowly won in November, could be even more important for Republicans. Both parties may also drive voters toward the early polls with Christmas and New Year’s holidays looming before Jan. 5.

Some Democrats also worry about the Republican attacks on mail-in voting. Meghan Shannon, 36, voted in person for Ossoff and Warnock on Monday at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta partly driven by fears that absentee ballots will be overly scrutinized.

“I think the absentee ballots are going to be questioned when they count the votes,” the architect said. “I wanted to be here in person so my vote is counted and its uncontested.”

In Kennesaw, Georgia, freedom was a key issue that drew Denise Adams, 50, to the first day of early voting.

“I don’t want to lose our freedoms,” she said. “I don’t want to be part of a socialistic country. We’re losing our rights and freedoms in our country.”

Each of Georgia’s 159 counties must offer at least one location for early voting during business hours, with many in metro Atlanta offering multiple locations, extended hours and weekend voting. Early voting will continue through Dec. 31 in some places.

Preparation for early voting has been marred by squabbles over cuts to the number of early polling places.

Cobb County, once a suburban Republican stronghold trending Democratic, planned to cut early polling places from 11 to five. The county election manager said employees are exhausted and she did not have enough to staff more than that. After an outcry that closures would harm Black voters, the county said it would open two more locations and relocate a third.

Heavily Republican Forsyth County is cutting early voting locations from 11 to five and cutting hours, rejecting an effort to expand sites. Elections Director Mandi Smith told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that with a shorter ballot and fewer voters expected, 11 sites are not needed.

Forsyth Republicans applauded the move, saying on the party Facebook page that the county rejected the “Democrats scheme” for more sites. The GOP reasoned that even early in-person voting is prone to cheating, although it did not explain how, with voters required to appear in person with photo identification.

The Center for New Data, a nonprofit group, counted 42 early polling sites statewide scheduled to close for the runoff. In some cases, polling places are being relocated nearby.

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Associated Press writers Haleluya Hadero and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.