A steady line of voters waited outside the South Fulton Service Center at 5710 Stonewall Tell Road as early “in-person” voting for the Nov. 8 presidential election started Monday across Georgia. Thousands of voters have already begun to return mail-in absentee ballots for the election. During the last presidential election, nearly 2 million people in Georgia cast early ballots ahead of Election Day — almost half of all ballots cast. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: John Spink
Photo: John Spink

Long lines and big crowds usher in early voting in Georgia

Some worried that an emergency would force them out of town on Election Day. Some were nervous about excruciatingly long lines and huge delays next month. And some just wanted an excuse to tune out the rest of this incendiary presidential race.

“I’m just tired of listening to them bickering, and I already knew who I was going to vote for,” said Annelise Lonidier, a Hillary Clinton supporter who voted at South DeKalb Mall. “And now that I’ve voted, I’m going to withdraw from it all.”

The battle for the White House entered a new phase Monday as thousands of Georgia voters queued up to cast their ballots on the first day they could vote in person before the Nov. 8 election. The wave of early voting was a crucial test for Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, locked in a tight battle for Georgia’s 16 Electoral College votes.

Elections officials across metro Atlanta reported big crowds at polling sites, with some voters undaunted by the long lines waiting for hours to cast their ballots. In Cobb County, more than 1,000 people voted in the first three hours after a pair of polling sites opened.

Among them was Sarah Palmer, who wanted to vote early for Trump because she was set to be steaming toward the Panama Canal on a cruise ship on Election Day. She appreciates his vows to improve the economy and to crack down on illegal immigration. But what she might like most is the motive behind his White House run.

“He doesn’t need the job,” quipped Palmer, a 70-year-old from east Cobb.

The crowd of 100 gathered outside Gwinnett County’s Lawrenceville elections office quickly swelled to 400 shortly after it opened Monday, gelling into a murmuring mass of soon-to-be-voters that snaked deep into a parking lot.

By day’s end, wait times stretching as long as four and five hours were reported — and volunteers were passing out water to the waiting.

“We were expecting a crowd,” Gwinnett Elections Director Lynn Ledford said, “but we were not expecting this.”

One of the earliest to arrive was Deno Stephens, a 65-year-old police officer who said the “mayhem” in the presidential race drove her to show up early.

“It’s time for a female,” the Snellville resident said, “and Trump’s a damn bully.”

Not everyone was exactly eager to vote. Rebecca Johnson, a DeKalb County resident who describes herself as an “independent Republican,” said Trump’s divisive rhetoric has forced her to vote for Clinton.

But she’s not happy about it. She wouldn’t even utter Clinton’s name — only saying she’s doing what she must in a year of poor choices.

All-important early voting

The early vote is one of the most important challenges for each campaign — and for good reason. Almost half of the Georgia ballots cast in the 2012 presidential contest — nearly 2 million — were cast ahead of Election Day. Analysts expect that number to rise this year as more polling sites open.

Both parties tried to seize the day. Democrats held a rally at South DeKalb Mall, organized a “Millennial March” in downtown Atlanta led by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and kicked off a bus tour in Augusta and Athens featuring local politicians.

Trump’s campaign brought in Donald Trump Jr. on Friday to urge Republicans to cast their ballots early. And the Millennials for Trump group held a rally Sunday at Georgia State University featuring Brietbart News Editor Milo Yiannopoulos trying to rev up young supporters.

At least 50,000 absentee ballots have already been tallied in Georgia.

Robert Page, though, wanted to make sure he showed up in person. He and his wife will be in Massachusetts visiting their children and grandchildren the week of the election, and he wanted to leave nothing to chance.

“We’re scared,” the 81-year-old Trump supporter said. “It’s our kids and grandchildren we’re scared for. … I’m so afraid that if we continue this any further we’ll be beyond repair.”

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Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Joshua Sharpe contributed to this article.

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