Long lines persist on second day of early voting in metro Atlanta

Long lines form outside the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration offices for the first day of early voting Monday Morning, October 12, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

In what may seem like a repeat of Georgia’s June election debacle, the first two days of early voting have been a rough opening act, with metro voters waiting up to 8 hours to cast a ballot.

This time, voting officials in Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett have pointed to the sheer volume of voters as the biggest factor behind the long lines.

By Tuesday afternoon, voters faced estimated waits as long as eight hours in Gwinnett and five in Cobb. Fulton does not post estimated wait times, but multiple voters said they had waited for more than two hours. Around the metro counties, many early voting locations reported estimated wait times of more than 90 minutes before noon. DeKalb County was an outlier, reporting lines of under an hour.

“This is really about turnout,” Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said on Tuesday. “We’re seeing record numbers. As much as the counties prepared for record early voting, we’re still going to see long lines.”

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But numbers alone did not lead to the frustrating waits. Officials in Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett on Monday cited technical glitches with machines used to check in voters, long ballots that were time-consuming for voters to complete and social distancing precautions that allowed fewer poll workers and voters in a building at once.

Issues with “Poll Pads” — iPads with state voting software that poll workers use to load voter cards — were reported in multiple jurisdictions. Poll Pad software issues caused a 40-minute delay Monday at State Farm Arena, a Fulton County voting site that is the largest in Georgia, Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron said.

Poll workers in Gwinnett were repeatedly kicked out of the software and forced to log back in, delaying the check-in process, Gwinnett County Elections Director Kristi Royston said. On Tuesday, a brief computer outage was reported at an early voting location in a former Sam’s Club in South DeKalb; there were issues connecting to the state system for about 10 minutes, voter Michael Guthrie recalled a poll worker telling the line of about 60 people.

“Turnout is smashing expectations, we are working with our vendors to make sure we have the bandwidth to handle even larger, record-breaking volumes,” Fuchs said late Tuesday. Improved bandwidth should speed the process of checking voter records with the Secretary of State’s office.

Other small things are adding to the longer waits: Voters are taking longer than they would in a primary or non-presidential election year to complete a ballot because of the many races and ballot questions, Royston said. The extra step of printing and scanning a voter’s ballot, part of the new voting machines rolled out early this year, also makes the process slower.

Another factor are voters who requested absentee ballots but come to vote in-person. Poll workers can cancel absentee ballots, but the extra steps require more time.

Even if everything else in the voting process was perfectly executed, the reduced capacity of many longtime polling places meant fewer people could cast a vote at once. The number of issuing stations — where voters check in and get the card used to cast their ballot — was reduced in some locations to allow for social distancing. The bulky machines which require a separate scanner take up more room than the voting machines used in previous years, allowing for fewer in each room.

"Times have changed,” said Jacquelyn Bettadapur, chairwoman of the Cobb County Democratic Committee. “There are more voters and there’s more engagement. They just haven’t kept up with the times.”

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Gwinnett is working to increase capacity at their elections office, which faced the longest lines Monday and Tuesday. They’re adding five more voting machines and two more issuing stations. The indoor portion of the line will be eliminated to make room for the additional poll workers and voters.

Larger venues, like the Cobb County Civic Center, could help ease wait times, Bettadapur said. Fulton County does not record wait time estimates, but voters reported lines moving steadily at the massive State Farm Arena polling place. The Infinite Energy Center could serve the same purpose in Gwinnett, state Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville, said.

Some voters worried the long waits endured in the first two days would deter people that had otherwise planned on coming out to vote.

“It feels like voter suppression is going on here, with hopes people will see this line and just walk away,” said Enise Dean, a Gwinnett voter who waited nearly eight hours to cast a vote Monday.

In Fulton, Randy Minter took a day off of work so he’d have time to vote. Walking out of Ponce De Leon Branch Library after a 2.5-hour wait, he rewarded himself by lighting up a Marlboro Special Blend. He said he didn’t trust voting by mail or using a dropbox.

“I think they may not count them,” he said. “I’ll just do it the way it’s always been done.”

As he got into his car, a couple was also getting into theirs after waiting only 10 minutes in line. They gave up on the library, saying they were going to avoid the sun and vote at State Farm Arena, which is just what county elections officials are telling people to do if they run into a long line.

Kate Dwyer, 51, stuck it out at the library, also enduring a 2.5-hour wait. Once she submitted her ballot, she had to rush to a Grady High School volunteering commitment; she didn’t expect voting would take so long.

Dwyer said she was in line before her Buckhead precinct opened on the June 9 primary Election Day and waited 3 hours to vote. She came Tuesday to avoid that stress again. But she knows others may not have the option.

“My fear is people with work and schedules, (lines) may prevent them from voting,” Dwyer said.

ExploreVoter questions: Can you vote in person if you requested an absentee ballot?

Despite the delays that had voters bringing lawn chairs and snacks to lines that snaked through parking lots, Fulton officials on Tuesday said they felt good about their opening act.

“We think that Day 1 was a successful day for us,” Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts told reporters over Zoom on Tuesday morning.

About 20,000 Fulton residents voted in person on Monday. That’s the second-busiest early voting day in Fulton history, said county elections head Richard Barron. The only busier day was the last day of early voting in 2016, which drew 26,000 voters. The final day usually draws far more people, so for a first day to compete shows the interest in this election, Barron said.

But officials are optimistic that the lines will die down as the early voting period continues through Oct. 30. Turnout is typically highest on the first and last days of early voting.

“We understand that there are lines, but there is heightened interest right now,” Barron said, adding that voting by mail is a safe option.

Staff writers Mark Niesse and Ada Wood contributed to this story.

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