Opinion: How can Georgia make it easier to vote?

Ideas range from extending early voting to drive-through polling sites.

On Nov. 6, 1984, Jan Critz waited in line for two hours while in early labor with her second child so she could vote for Republican incumbent Sen. Jesse Helms.

“I was big as an elephant,” she said.

This year, Critz had a much easier time voting.

Now 63 and a town council member in rural Mineral Springs, North Carolina, 12 miles from Helms' hometown of Monroe, Critz voted at the fire station on Oct. 15, the first day her state offered early voting.

She was in and out in about an hour. That’s the longest it’s taken her to vote since North Carolina started offering early voting in 2000.

“They were very efficient,” she said of the election officials, noting that because of COVID-19 precautions workers were limiting the number of voters in the fire station and taking the time to sanitize polling stations between voters.

The same day Critz voted at her local fire station in North Carolina, second-year law student Emma Bennett, 24, cast her own vote in Harris County, Texas.

Bennett drove her pewter blue 2005 Toyota 4Runner to a polling place, giving herself time to vote between patent and contract law classes at the University of Houston Law School.

“I walked right in,” she said. “There was absolutely no line.”

She had consulted her county’s board of election website, which provided real-time wait times for polling places.

Here in Georgia, the beginning days of early voting were plagued by technical breakdowns, computer glitches and waits of up to 8 hours.

So, what can Georgia, a battleground state with 16 electoral votes up for grabs, learn from other states to ensure smoother elections in the future?

North Carolina and Harris County, Texas – one of the nation’s most populous – provide an array of common-sense solutions, including: more polling places; more hours and days of early voting; and, in the case of Texas, drive-through voting.

Neighboring North Carolina has been offering voters the option to vote early ever since Republican candidate George W. Bush ran for president against Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000. Those two decades of early voting have given residents great comfort with the process, said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonpartisan group.

Cathy Moore, 69, a retired assistant county attorney, agreed.

“We’ve done it for so long we’ve gotten the kinks out,” said Moore, who consulted the Durham County Board of Elections website about wait times before driving to downtown Durham’s Criminal Justice Resource Center on East Main Street.

“I was in and out in less than 10 minutes,” she said.

North Carolina’s more efficient early voting experience is the result of many factors.

The North Carolina Board of Election issued an emergency order requiring one polling site per 20,000 registered voters. And in recent decades, North Carolina has had a robust tradition of nonpartisan advocacy for improved voter access, he said.

In Georgia, these efforts tend to be launched by partisan groups.

Michael King, legislative counsel at the Voting Rights Lab, an advocacy group, said he doesn’t think “there is any one comparable state that is doing things particularly well.”

However, he said, “Whereas Georgia’s early voting period ends the Friday before Election Day, over half of all states offer early voting up through the day before Election Day.”

Texas is one of just five states that refused to allow widespread mail-in voting.

Instead, it extended early voting an additional week – to Oct. 30. Harris County, home of Houston, poured resources into expanding early voting opportunities. More than 128,0000 Harris County voters cast ballots on Oct. 13, the first day of early voting, matching the first day total for the entire state of Georgia, said King.

Harris County claims to be the first jurisdiction in the state to offer “drive-thru voting,” a measure prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At 10 locations, drivers who display valid photo identification are handed a portable voting machine through their windows to vote. If there are multiple voters in the car, each takes a turn to vote. The county’s website says it can serve 10 to 30 voters at a time with drive-through voting.

And on Friday, Harris offered 100 polling places and seven early voting locations available for 24 consecutive hours.

“That gives people no excuses not to vote,” said R.J. Coronado, 27, an organizer with the Harris County Democratic Party. “There’s a time for everybody.”

Dr. Trey Hood, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Georgia, said the state is doing an adequate job and that three weeks is a “very long period” for early voting.

One challenge facing county election officials, he said, is predicting voter behavior: Traditionally, the early days of early voting had not seen such crowds and thus officials slowly opened polling sites.

“It’s a moving target,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean they aren’t trying.”

Anything, Hood said, can be improved, but, in Georgia, adding new polling locations might not be realistic.

As he said, “You only have so many voting machines.”

Allison Salerno is a freelance writer based in Athens. This story is part of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.