Absentee voting in Georgia embraced equally by voters of both parties

Voters wait in May to gain access to their electronic ballot cards during early voting at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Lawrenceville. Election day is Tuesday for Georgia’s combined presidential and general election primary, which had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Voters wait in May to gain access to their electronic ballot cards during early voting at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Lawrenceville. Election day is Tuesday for Georgia’s combined presidential and general election primary, which had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

No matter their political party, Georgia voters quickly adapted to voting by mail in a primary election hindered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Over 1.2 million people have already voted — about three-quarters of them on absentee ballots — according to state elections data after early voting ended Friday. Voters were closely split between Democrats and Republicans heading into election day on Tuesday.

Georgians embraced voting from home, avoiding human contact at polling places. A record 943,000 voters had returned their absentee ballots through Sunday, a 2,500% increase compared with absentee-by-mail voting in the 2016 presidential primary.

But the coronavirus brought problems to both in-person and absentee voting.

Voters waited in line for hours Friday because of social distancing requirements, and voters were also slowed by a long ballot of candidates for president, Congress, the courts and other offices. In Fulton County, some voters reported they never received their absentee ballots after requesting them weeks beforehand.

The secretary of state’s office opened an investigation into Fulton, and the voting rights group Fair Fight Action said it might go to court to ensure votes are counted.

Still, voters are engaged in this combined presidential and general primary that was postponed because of the coronavirus. Depending on how many people get their votes in before polls close Tuesday, turnout could break the state record of nearly 2.1 million voters in the 2016 presidential primary.

Black voters mobilized to the polls during nationwide protests over police violence.

Turnout rose every day last week, especially among black voters, who accounted for 44% of all in-person voters Friday, exceeding their 30% share of the state’s registered voters. Four years ago, black voters accounted for 26% of the total on the last day of early voting.

“This has absolutely energized voters,” said Montoya Turner, an Atlanta wedding photographer who took part in a rally Sunday. “We had margins that thin in 2018, and some people realized they should have voted. And I’m trying to tell people the primary is just as important.”

Overall, 36% of all in-person early votes were cast by black voters.

Robert Davis, who works in retail, said he made his voice heard when voting Friday in Dunwoody.

“I haven’t been able to protest,” Davis said. “This is my way of protesting.”

Neither party held a clear advantage over the other by absentee voting, despite concerns that President Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans expressed that voting by mail would benefit Democrats.

Voters were nearly evenly split, 49% to 49%, among those who returned Democratic Party ballots and those who used Republican Party ballots, with the remainder completing nonpartisan ballots. Overall, including in-person voters, slightly more Georgians had cast Democratic Party ballots through Sunday, with the parties separated by just 11,000 votes across the state.

So many people voted absentee after Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger encouraged them to do so when he sent absentee ballot request forms to almost 7 million active voters.

Georgia has allowed anyone to cast an absentee ballot without needing an excuse since 2005, though few people did so in prior elections. About 6% of voters used absentee ballots in the 2018 general election.

This election brought out many new primary voters. About 37% of voters this year didn’t participate in either the presidential or general primary election in 2016.

Many voters haven't yet returned their absentee ballots. Of 1.6 million voters who requested absentee ballots, about 657,000 ballots haven't been returned.

Absentee ballots will only be counted if they're received by county election offices before polls close at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Voters can turn in their absentee ballots at drop boxes set up across metro Atlanta.

The torrent of absentee ballots could slow election results in some counties Tuesday night. The State Election Board allowed local election officials to start opening absentee ballots June 1, but they’ve never had to handle processing so many paper ballots before.

Results must be finalized by counties within 10 days after election day, by June 19, according to state law.

By the numbers

7.3 million: Registered voters in Georgia

1.6 million: Voters who requested absentee ballots

917,000: Absentee ballots returned through Saturday

325,000: In-person early voters

Source: Georgia secretary of state