They began lining up in the predawn hours. While it was still dark, Georgia’s hopeful voters relied on cell-phone flashlights from others in line to fill out pre-registration forms. Some brought bagged meals with them; others folding chairs and books to pass the time. Reporters watched as parking lots filled up and lines began snaking around designated polling stations. By the time polls closed on Monday, the first day of in-person voting in Georgia, some had waited more than 10 hours to cast their ballots.
In total, 126,876 Georgians went to the polls on Monday, CNN reports, citing numbers from the Georgia Secretary of State. It was a record for the first day of early voting in a state that is among the most closely scrutinized in this year’s election—and, depending on who you talk to, the long lines are a sign of enthusiasm, voting issues, or both.
Georgia is being closely watched by elected officials from both parties, as well as voting and civil rights activists, for a number of reasons: It is widely considered a battleground state and its recent history of voter purges, as well as allegations of voter suppression in the 2018 midterms, led many to question the integrity of the Peach State’s voting processes even before the coronavirus pandemic shifted the way many Georgians plan to vote.
“Planning to vote in person is really demonstrative of a commitment to making sure that our votes are counted and that we can at least know that when we press that button on that machine, that our votes have been submitted,” Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and head of the political advocacy group Black Futures Lab told The Root recently.
These concerns cropped up in a number of ways on Monday, with images of long lines at polling stations in Metro Atlanta—a region that has higher shares of Black residents than other parts of the state—going viral on social media. Among the places experiencing long lines was voting super-center the State Farm Arena, home to the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. The basketball arena saw an additional one-hour delay on Monday morning after a glitch with its digital poll books forced election workers to re-import voter databases, CNN reports.
Steve Koonin, president and CEO of the Atlanta Hawks and the State Farm Arena, told CNN that poll workers rebooted 60 electronic poll books because identification cards were being rejected by machines. Voters were able to cast their ballots without a hitch once the machines were rebooted.
There was also a last-minute ruling in which a federal judge decided not to institute a change that would require the state to use hand-marked paper ballots in lieu of voting machines. The suit, which began in 2017, came from election integrity activists who said the hand-marked method was the safest and most secure way for voters to cast their ballots.
But Judge Amy Totenberg, while noting “profound issues” with the electronic machines, in which voters use touchscreens to mark their choices, ruled on Sunday that she couldn’t justify upending the voting process so close to the beginning of early in-person voting.
“[T]he Court cannot jump off the legal edge and potentially trigger major disruption in the legally established state primary process governing the conduct of elections based on a preliminary evidentiary record,” Totenburg wrote.
While a record number of Georgians have requested mail-in ballots—about 1.5 million, according to CNN—some voters, many of them Black, opted to do early in-person voting out of concerns about their ballot being counted. The long lines seen in Georgia on Monday were indicative of “excitement and enthusiasm of the upcoming election,” Walter Jones, a spokesperson for Georgia’s secretary of state’s office, told CNN.
“Long lines are to be expected—voters need to be aware of all of their options including three weeks of early voting, no-excuse absentee and in-person voting day of the election,” Jones said.
Seth Clark, a newly elected member of the Macon-Bibb County Commission, cast his vote in Macon after waiting in line for three hours.
“I’ve never seen this many people on the first day of early voting,” Clark told the Associated Press.
“It seems to be going smoothly,” Clark said. “It’s just a lot.”
Early voting typically favors Democrats, and polling from this year suggests that Black people, in particular, prefer voting in person over casting a ballot via mail, despite concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus. CNN, citing data from Catalist, which tracks voter databases across the country, reports that among competitive states for the 2020 presidential election, Georgia has the largest share of ballots cast by Black voters. Black voters—considered one of the most stalwart and influential voting blocs of the Democratic party—also represent a greater share of pre-Election Day votes in Georgia than they did four years ago, Catalist’s numbers show. In 2016, they made up 29 percent of all early voting; so far in 2020, Black voters have comprised 35 percent of all early ballots. In total, 425,000 votes have been cast in the state thus far.
Many online called the long lines—especially in counties with large Black populations—unacceptable, and some accused state election officials of trying to suppress the vote. One Cobb County voter reported waiting more than 9 hours in line, while singer and songwriter Johntá Austin wrote on Twitter that he stood in line for 11 hours on Monday waiting to cast a ballot.
Steve Davidson was one of many Black Georgians who endured long lines to vote, and told the AP he drew inspiration from the late Georgia congressman John Lewis and other activists who fought for voting rights.
“They’ve been fighting for decades. If I’ve got to wait six or seven hours, that’s my duty to do that. I’ll do it happily,” Davidson said.
Nationwide, The Guardian reports that more than 9.4 million people have already voted in the 2020 election—an “unprecedented number.”