Georgia early voting behind 2008, but Saturday surge possible

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Georgia early voting behind 2008, but Saturday surge possible

Fewer Georgians appear to be taking advantage of early voting, although the biggest push may yet start Saturday as polls open for a mandatory weekend day.

Voting opportunities will also increase starting Monday, as counties especially in metro Atlanta expand the number of early-voting polling sites and extend hours. Early voting ends Friday. Next up? Nov. 6, Election Day.

Nearly 690,000 early ballots have been cast so far this election, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. While overall numbers are tracking below the last presidential election in 2008, early voting — even a much shorter version this year — continues to be popular for its convenience, forcing candidates to change how they campaign.

“Personally, I believe voting is one of our civic obligations as Americans,” said Hunter Hill, a Republican candidate for state Senate District 6, based in Fulton and Cobb counties. “So we have been actively encouraging residents of the district to vote early, to vote absentee and to vote on Election Day.”

The expansion of early voting in Georgia was hailed four years ago as a game-changer. More than 2 million voters cast ballots before Election Day 2008, a nearly 400 percent increase over the prior presidential election that was spurred by changes to state law that expanded the state’s early-voting calendar to 45 days.

The state is not on track to beat that record. As of Thursday, the state’s typical top five counties for ballots returned early — Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Henry — were on average tracking about 72 percent below their final early-voting turnout from four years ago.

Fulton and DeKalb, traditionally Democratic strongholds, were both down about 65 percent. Gwinnett, dominated by the GOP, was down about 77 percent. Cobb, also largely Republican, was down about 84 percent. Henry was down about 68 percent.

One likely explanation is the shorter period for early voting — legislators in 2011 shortened the period from 45 days to 21 days. It is also true that those gaps narrow every day and will narrow more through next week, although no one knows by how much. The state stopped short this year of publicly setting an overall early-voting goal. In a poll conducted recently for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, nearly 40 percent of likely Georgia voters said they plan to cast a ballot during early voting.

Four years ago, 53 percent of all those who voted in Georgia cast ballots before Election Day, either in person or by mail. They heeded warnings from state officials to vote early and avoid lines. Many early voters, however, stood in long lines — waits of up to eight hours were reported — then saw congestion-free polling sites on Election Day.

“People are always anticipating in this election what happened before,” said Georgia State University professor Sean Richey, who studies political behavior.

Richey’s guess is turnout will be down all over the country from 2008, historic not least because voters elected the nation’s first black president. “There’s a lot of things that made 2008 very intense for a lot of people,” Richey said.

Given the lines in Georgia in 2008, he said, “a lot of people might be thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just wait until Election Day.’ ”

Chris Huttman, a Democratic pollster and media strategist, said comparisons of 2012 with 2008 are difficult given that in-person early voting started later this year — Oct. 15 — than four years ago.

“There were four weeks of advanced (in-person) voting heavily taken advantage of by black voters in 2008, which we didn’t have this year,” Huttman said. State totals as of Thursday showed black early voting turnout at 33 percent, compared with an overall black turnout of 30 percent in 2008. White turnout, as of Thursday, was at 61.2 percent.

Any voter registered in Georgia can vote early, either by mail via an absentee ballot or in-person — which election officials sometimes call “advanced” voting. Most who do cite the convenience.

“I used them for years in Arizona before moving here, and my wife would probably not vote at all if they were unavailable,” Stephen M. Lykins, a Doraville resident, said of the absentee ballots he and his wife use. “Can’t wait for the next step — online voting!”

While some Republicans are pointing to early-voting numbers as proof that Democrats are less enthused than in 2008, Huttman said it’s too soon to say that for sure.

“I wouldn’t be confident in making a claim one way or another,” he said. “It’s not a direct comparison.”

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, is locked in a bruising race with Republican Chris Boedeker in a DeKalb-centered district. Holcomb’s district changed after the Republican-controlled General Assembly made it easier for the GOP to compete through last year’s redrawing of political boundaries.

With a new district and voters who don’t know him, Holcomb said early voting has forced him to devote much time and resources to reaching voters now.

Still, he said: “I’ve continued to door-knock, and more people than not have not voted yet. We may see an uptick in early voting as we get closer, now that we’re in that two-week window, but I don’t think it’s been as high as it was in 2008.”

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