People cast their votes during Saturday early voting at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM) Reann Huber
Photo: Reann Huber
Photo: Reann Huber

Early voting slow, but Democrats gaining on Republicans in Georgia

Georgia Democrats are pinning their political hopes on a jolt of voter enthusiasm, and early-voting numbers indicate an uptick — if not quite a wave — of left-leaning voters casting ballots ahead of next week’s primary.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of the first two weeks of early-voting data shows an increase of more than 50 percent of Democratic ballots cast from the same period in 2014, the last time a midterm election was held.

Overall, early-voting turnout is on track to decline compared with four years ago, when about 240,000 cast their ballots before Election Day.

Back then, the Democratic nominee for governor was uncontested and Gov. Nathan Deal faced long-shot challengers. Now, five Republicans and two Democrats are in the race for the open seat.

While turnout is markedly down for both parties from the same point in 2016, a presidential election year that generally attracts more voter participation, the figures show Democrats are catching up to the GOP.

A man casts his vote during Saturday early voting at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Two years ago, Republicans accounted for 62 percent of the early vote. This year, they’re at 52 percent.

One difference this year is that more Democrats are running in high-profile primary races, such as for the governorship and seats in Congress. That wasn’t the case in the last midterm election in 2014, when Jason Carter was the only Democrat running for governor and more races were uncontested.

Whether Democratic gains in early voting are an indication of shifting political energy or just a statistical blip is not yet known.

But early voting has played an increasingly important role in Georgia’s votes. In 2014, early voting accounted for about 40 percent of the total general election vote. By the 2016 presidential election year, it ballooned to roughly 60 percent.

Still, candidates and party officials are bracing for low overall turnout in the May 22 contests. Early-voting sites across the state have reported a trickle of voters, and local leaders are worried that tepid enthusiasm could bring a muted response at the polls.

“It’s concerning to me. There’s not as much enthusiasm out there as there should be across the board — not just the governor’s race,” said Floyd Griffin Jr., a former state senator and Democratic leader in Baldwin County, one of the most competitive areas in Georgia.

“We’re trying to turn up the heat here,” he said. “We need to make sure that the surrogates are out there. We need to emphasize economic development and education. We need as much visibility as possible.”

Changing Democrats

The two Democrats running for governor, former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans, are using competing strategies to try to harness the party’s frustration with President Donald Trump and retake the seat for the first time since 2002.

Evans has stuck to a more conventional approach by stockpiling the bulk of her campaign cash to blanket the airwaves with TV ads and radio spots. In the final stretch, she’s stuck to lower-key events across the state and press conferences with prominent local supporters.

Abrams has spent little on campaign ads, favoring a grass-roots appeal to the party’s African-American base and a broader attempt to activate voters who don’t normally cast ballots. She’s held raucous rallies with celebrities and national political figures to drive attention to her bid to become the nation’s first black female governor.

An analysis of the first two weeks shows the competition has sparked more interest than in 2014, when most of the party’s biggest names ran with little or no opposition.

The results show Democratic turnout jumped highest in Republican-held congressional districts in the increasingly competitive northern suburbs of metro Atlanta.

That means that, at least when it comes to early voting, Democratic voters are a more diverse group than they were four years ago. Ballots cast by African-American voters — who make up the largest bloc of the party’s electorate — have increased by 38 percent over 2014. White voters have spiked even higher, by 68 percent.

Overall, black voters made up 68 percent of the early ballots cast at this point four years ago. That’s dropped to 61 percent this year, due in part to more voter participation from other minorities and in part from Democrats in suburban areas.

“I vote Democratic, and that’s a rarity here in Dunwoody,” Carey Cox Coghill said shortly after emerging from an early-voting site in the north DeKalb County town. “I’ve always been a careful observer of politics, but I’m noticing other folks around me paying attention more.”

Democrats shouldn’t get too excited about early-voting numbers, said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor.

“As for whether this is a harbinger of a wave, I would urge caution in the interpretation,” she said.

“If one party turns out at a significantly higher rate than they usually do, then that is a measure of enthusiasm and engagement,” she said. “However, it is important to keep in mind that primary election electorates look very different from general election electorates.”

‘Not excited’

Early voting has fallen off since the presidential election in 2016 and the special election for the 6th Congressional District last year, when Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff, Fulton Elections Director Rick Barron said.

In those elections, more than 60 percent of voters turned out before Election Day. But compared with four years ago, voting at Fulton County’s 21 early-voting sites has nearly doubled, to 16,317 through this weekend. Fulton had the most early voters in the state.

“It seems really slow,” Barron said. “The turnout in Georgia for primaries tends not to be that high anyway. … I’m hoping a lot of people turn out this week.”

Some early voters were drawn more out of a sense of duty than enthusiasm. Others didn’t want to be stressed about forgetting.

“I wanted to get it out of the way and establish who I wanted to vote for,” said Pam Evans, a state employee in Decatur who backed Abrams. “And I wanted to support someone who holds the key foundational principles that I also hold.”

A recent tour of voting sites found plenty of touchscreen machines not in use. Only a handful of voters trickled in to an early-voting site in Midtown during a busy lunch hour; visits to suburban sites were just as rare.

On Saturday during the last weekend when polls were open for advance in-person voting, the four election workers and 15 voting machines at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in southwest Atlanta were largely idle.

“People are not excited,” said Philip Francis, the poll manager at the center. “It should be more. It’s usually more, let me put it that way.”

But low turnout in the primaries might not mean much for the Nov. 6 general election, when voters are accustomed to showing up for the races they care most about, said Steve Anthony, a retired Georgia State University political science professor.

“Everybody is all about the general election,” Anthony said. “People just don’t want to fool with the filtering out that goes on in the primary. I think there’s going to be a large turnout in the fall. The bulk of the voters are not voters who keep up with this day in and day out.”
Staff writer Alan Judd contributed to this article.

Early voting began Monday, April 30 for Georgia's primary elections.

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