In the shadows of billboards along I-85 and I-20 encouraging Atlantans to “VOTE EARLY,” barriers to that act loom large. There were reminders of this again during June’s egregious primary election: In populous, rapidly diversifying metro Atlanta counties like Fulton and Cobb, wait times extended up to six hours after polling locations were consolidated during the pandemic. The state’s new electronic voting machines also frequently malfunctioned, further slowing the ballot casting process.
Voters interviewed by POLITICO said anger over perceived voter suppression tactics is fueling their eagerness to cast early ballots. And indeed, Georgians are voting in numbers never seen before in the state’s history. Since Oct. 12, the first day of early voting, a staggering 2.7 million voters have cast a ballot — a nearly 110 percent increase from 2016. Beyond that, Democrats are organizing caravans, volunteering as election workers and serving as poll watchers. This level of enthusiasm is also a reflection of apprehension about the election: Voters here are turning out in waves.
Georgia “has been a solid red state,” said LaTosha Brown, a Georgia native and co-founder of Black Voters Matter, which has mobilized African American voters across the South. But now, she said, “It’s a purple state. You’re seeing a rapid shift in the demographics. So this isn’t about just partisanship. This is about power.”
‘Y’all need some help’
Aurelia Gray, a lifelong Georgia voter, signed up to be an election volunteer for the first time following her experience at the polls in her suburban Stonewall Tell community, located in Fulton County, during the June primary. After waiting four hours in line to vote, she said, she was inspired to act.
“I said, ‘If I don’t do nothing else, I’m going to sign up to work the polls,’” said Gray, who is African American. She told poll workers in her neighborhood, “It seems like y’all need some help.”
Gray wasn’t the only one moved to volunteer. So many people signed up to help at Gray’s troubled polling place she was assigned to a different location. The precinct where she works now has wait times under an hour since the second week of early voting, thanks to a lower volume of voters and slew of young poll workers hired in Fulton County in response to June’s debacle.
“You can’t sit and complain. You’ve got to do something to help and assist. And that’s what I did,” she said. “I just made up my mind to do something,”
Still, even with reinforcements, in the first week of early voting in the general election, Georgians waited as long as 11 hours to vote in some precincts. Others were in and out in 10 minutes.
Election officials scurried to fix the disparities. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, recruited 10,000 voters to work the polls. The state also commissioned buses stocked with voting machines, which allowed for drive-up voting around Fulton County and opened the 680,000-square-foot State Farm Arena with an additional 300 machines.
And now, as the state begins its last week of early voting, lines at the polls are moving much faster.
In Fulton County, which includes both the city of Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs, wait times rarely exceeded 30 minutes since the first day of early voting — a far cry from the primary, where some voters did not leave precincts until the early hours of the following day. Suburban Cobb County is showing similar signs of improvement.
“You know, so far, we haven’t had issues this week,” said Janine Eveler, the county’s director of elections and voter registration, on Thursday. “I’m hopeful that whenever [state officials] did to improve the system will continue to hold the increased demand.”
Troubles at the ballot box are propelling engagement, particularly among Black voters. An analysis from ProPublica’s Electionland found that predominantly Black precincts in the state were more likely to have the longest wait times, despite a surge in voter registrations there.
At the same time, participation even among Democrats’ most loyal voting bloc has soared ahead of the general election. More than 737,000 African Americans have already voted in Georgia. Black voting is on track to eclipse its 2008 record, when turnout increased by 8 percentage points among Black Georgians hyped to vote for Barack Obama.
“The thing is, this is the largest turnout, I think, statewide that I have ever seen,” said former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, noting a similar pattern nationwide. “And that’s usually a very good sign. It’s a good sign for democracy. Whoever they voted for.”
The former congressman, now 88, was recently named to a statewide elections improvement task force formed by Raffensperger. And, thanks to voter enthusiasm, he’s optimistic about Democrats’ chances.
“The candidates now have more confidence, and more money, and more organization,” Young said. “And some of the best commercials I have ever seen in my life.”
‘The stakes feel extraordinarily high’
The high level of Black voter engagement is the result of years of grassroots organizing, with a particular focus on mobilizing new voters — and protecting the vote. The New Georgia Project, which is marshaling young people of color across the state, averages a half-million calls and texts to millennial and Gen Z voters per week, according to its CEO, Nse Ufot.
“People are understanding that they are doing what they have to do, that the stakes feel extraordinarily high,” Ufot said.
Georgia Democrats are building their hopes for a blue Georgia on record early voting numbers and turnout. Early voting among Georgians under 40 is more than three times what it was in 2016, as nearly 600,000 young voters in the state have cast a ballot, according to the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan group that registers new voters.
And while Black voters are setting records, Asian American and Latino voters in particular will make the difference in the racially diverse Atlanta suburbs. According to data from APIAVote, which mobilizes Asian American voters, the number of AAPI voters in Georgia grew by 43 percent between 2010 and 2016. The Latino population in the state is one of the fastest-growing in the nation, swelling by 118 percent over the last two decades, according to an analysis by the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Despite partisan gerrymandering that contributed to leaving more than 80 percent of Georgia’s state legislative races uncontested in 2016, demographic shifts are turning those suburban Atlanta counties increasingly Democratic.
Johns Creek, an affluent suburb just north of Atlanta and one-time Republican stronghold, which is now nearly a quarter Asian, voted blue in 2018. Gun control activist Lucy McBath, a Democrat and the mother of murdered Black teen Jordan Davis, defeated the Republican incumbent for the 6th Congressional District seat, which includes Johns Creek and other Atlanta suburbs.
“They’re really doing the work,” said Abigail Collazo, a Georgia-based Democratic strategist and former Stacey Abrams spokesperson, of Asian American voters. “They’re not automatically Biden’s supporters. So you’re talking like, not just, ‘Oh, let’s just turn out the AAPI vote. It’s persuasion. It’s mobilization, its representation — and Kamala [Harris].’”
Still, President Donald Trump maintains a hold on his base in rural Georgia counties and whiter Atlanta suburbs, where voter skepticism has also driven an uptick in early votes by absentee ballot. A New York Times/Siena College poll out earlier this month shows Trump and Biden locked in a tie among Georgia voters, as did a CBS News Battleground Tracker poll released Sunday.
It’s led state Rep. Matthew Gambill, a Republican whose district includes Cartersville, a northern city in metro Atlanta, to doubt reports of a Democratic sweep next month.
“I think in my area that [voting] has gone very well,” he said, noting improvements in the state’s electronic voting system. “I still don’t see Georgia as a blue state, as some are saying that it is. I’m not 100 percent sure about that. I do still think that Georgia is more of a red state.”
‘A form of voter suppression’
Still, some problems persist — and threaten to make a compound difference in the outcome of the election. The online reporting software that allows voters to view wait times at their nearest polling location have proven faulty, with fast-moving lines falsely showing wait times above 60 and 90 minutes. And despite the state’s mandate to send absentee ballots to all Georgia voters who request them, some at the polls said they haven’t received theirs yet.
Jonie Blount, a Cobb County voter, said she received her absentee ballot in the mail but was wary of mailing it in due to Trump’s attacks on the U.S. Postal Service. But due to an injury, she was unable to wait in line so decided to drop off her ballot in person. She’s still concerned about the safety of her vote. In June, she learned her mail-in ballot for the Democratic primary was not accepted because it didn’t reach her assigned precinct in time.
“I hope that the ballot boxes are secure and there’s no way that anyone can get in and tamper or take out [my ballot],” said Blount, who is Black.
And while lines are faster moving, state officials have yet to designate the adequate amount of voting locations in keeping with state regulations. While Georgia law mandates that voting locations cap the number of people served at 2,000, counties serve well above 3,000 daily in some places, according to data from independent data analyst Ryan Anderson.
“It is a form of voter suppression to massively underfund and understaff and [under]prepare for the turnout that we have. After what we saw in June no one should have been caught off guard that we were going to have a massive, massive early vote turnout,” said state Rep. Erick Allen, one of a handful of Democratic legislators representing Smyrna, an Atlanta suburb. His district saw some of the longest wait times at the polls one week into early voting.
“Either it’s voter suppression or complete incompetence on the planning,” Allen said.