To show you how hot the 6th Congressional District special election is in the northern Atlanta suburbs, Lynn and Sheila Keeney made the five-minute drive to Cobb County’s main elections office in Marietta only to sheepishly turn around without voting.
The nationally watched race to replace former U.S. Rep. Tom Price has drawn 18 candidates in what many have described as an early barometer on the presidency of Donald Trump. The Keeneys, both in their early 70s, can’t watch television without seeing the political advertisements blanketing the airwaves in a final push before Election Day on Tuesday.
But while the district covers parts of three of the metro area’s core counties — Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton — neither of the Keeneys realized that their Cobb County home wasn’t within the boundaries. And they weren’t alone. Scores of voters showed up at the Cobb elections office during the early-voting period without realizing it, either.
“We see the ads,” said Lynn Keeney, who said he had gotten more politically active after retirement. “So we’ve decided to put as much or much more conscious effort to look into the local people and in particular the congressional elections. We feel like we can make more of a difference in Congress than we can in president.”
Voting has been underway since March 27 in a steady if uneven stream, raising expectations of a better than average turnout in what both major parties have said is a ramped-up effort to get people to the polls. Turnout for special elections is usually much lower than regular elections, but the count had hit more than 21,000 by the start of the week with reports of lines at some polling places on Saturday.
By comparison, Price’s race for re-election in November drew more than 326,000 voters, although turnout was especially heavy because the ballot included a presidential election. A better comparison might be a special election in the same congressional district in 1999, which drew more than 79,200 voters.
This year, the political battles to replace Price have intensified under a national glare. Democratic groups have thrown their financial support behind party favorite Jon Ossoff, who has raised more than $8.3 million largely from out-of-state donors and is polling above 40 percent.
Conservative groups, meanwhile, have hired field staff and spent millions attacking Ossoff while also boosting Republican chances. Georgia requires a winner to get more than 50 percent of the vote for victory. If no candidate in the race wins outright, the top two vote-getters would be pitted against each other in a June 20 runoff that would likely be a slugfest between Ossoff and a top GOP contender.
Republicans believe such a scenario would cause voters in the district to coalesce behind their candidate. The 6th has long been a Republican stronghold.
For now, few voters seem to be unsure of their choice or the issues driving them.
Health care and education were the most often mentioned Monday as voters came in and out of Cobb’s Marietta location, with many worried about the effect repealing the Affordable Care Act would have on those most in need of medical care.
“To me, I vote for people based on what I believe in and what they believe in, not just what they do,” said Wally Ayanlaja, who had driven in with his wife, Carmencita, before she had to get to work.
“When you do not have health care, those of us who do have health care, we are the ones who are going to pay for those who don’t,” Carmencita Ayanlaja said.
“Primarily I vote Democrat, to be honest,” Wally Ayanlaja said. “But if I have another candidate I feel is better, I will vote for them. I’m a swing voter. It’s the issues. I’m more into the issues than black or white, or Democratic or Republican. It could be independent. It could be a great idea. That’s who gets my vote.”
And to a degree, a number of voters agreed their ballot was also a litmus test on the Trump presidency.
“To a certain extent yeah, it could be,” said Linda Powell, 78, who owns a trophy shop on Canton Road. “But it’s more like being in the community and voting for somebody you would really like to represent you. The thing is, you’ve got so much brochure and you’ve got so much phone calls. If you study who they are, then you can pretty well figure out who’s going to be good and who’s not.”
Steven Staud, 34, did not mince his words. He simply said “Donald Trump” when asked what motivated him to cast his ballot.
“The problem with being president of the United States is, like, you sign up for a bunch of things that you didn’t necessarily intend to sign up for, and he doesn’t understand that,” Staud said of the president.
Don Em, a Dunwoody retiree, has lived in the district for more than 30 years. Sipping coffee with his wife Tuesday, he took stock of the flood of signs and the volunteers for Ossoff on street corners in what he once thought was solidly Republican turf.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. Ever,” Em said. “It’s scary but it’s good.”
He and his wife both voted early on Tuesday for former state Sen. Judson Hill, a Cobb County Republican, citing his experience — and concerns about Ossoff.
“It’s all about his resume. He (Hill) was a state senator. And I like his views on the budget and health care,” Em said.
Cobb Elections Director Janine Eveler said the volume of voters had not quite hit the numbers she was expecting, although the office has now opened a second early-voting location in east Cobb that saw 1,100 voters on Saturday and will also be open all this week.
Turnout in Fulton, on the other hand, has impressed county Elections Director Richard Barron, who said voting seemed heavy for a special election. His county has not had a similar problem as Cobb with out-of-district voters showing up not knowing they weren’t eligible, but interest still seems to be high.
“With 18 candidates in the field, plenty of people should be receiving prompts to vote,” Barron said. “In addition, from what I have read and heard, both parties have strong candidates that are driving turnout. It is competitive.”
Early voting in the district ends Friday.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.