Voting goes smoothly on Election Day after chaotic Georgia primary

November 3, 2020 Atlanta: Poll worker Lauren Smith points the way at Park Tavern in Atlanta on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Voters lined up outside polling places Tuesday morning to be among the first to cast their votes on a crucial Election Day. It’s expected to be the biggest day of voting in Georgia, with turnout reaching as high as 2 million. Another 3.9 million people already cast early or absentee ballots. Some told The Atlanta Journal Constitution that they expect social unrest whether Biden or Trump wins the election. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

November 3, 2020 Atlanta: Poll worker Lauren Smith points the way at Park Tavern in Atlanta on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Voters lined up outside polling places Tuesday morning to be among the first to cast their votes on a crucial Election Day. It’s expected to be the biggest day of voting in Georgia, with turnout reaching as high as 2 million. Another 3.9 million people already cast early or absentee ballots. Some told The Atlanta Journal Constitution that they expect social unrest whether Biden or Trump wins the election. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Everyone saw the winding lines in Georgia’s primary that kept voters waiting for hours and embarrassed election officials.

They learned their lesson before Election Day. This time, voters and election officials were ready.

Voting went smoothly for most people on Tuesday, with short waits and much lighter turnout than expected. A record number of early and absentee voters, motivated to lock in their votes rather than risk lines during the coronavirus pandemic, resulted in fewer Georgians having to cast ballots on Election Day.

There were still problems in some areas.

Technical glitches with voter check-in tablets called Poll Pads caused problems in Spalding and Morgan counties, forcing voters to use backup paper ballots. Voters at Morris Brandon Primary Center in Buckhead encountered similar issues. A Cobb County voting location opened late because a poll manager overslept.

But unlike in the primary — or the hectic 2018 election — this time problems didn’t snowball into excessive delays that held up voters and threatened their ability to cast a ballot.

November 3, 2020 Atlanta: A poll worker sorts through voting material at Park Tavern in Atlanta on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Voters lined up outside polling places Tuesday morning to be among the first to cast their votes on a crucial Election Day. It’s expected to be the biggest day of voting in Georgia, with turnout reaching as high as 2 million. Another 3.9 million people already cast early or absentee ballots. Some told The Atlanta Journal Constitution that they expect social unrest whether Biden or Trump wins the election. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

By the end of the day, average wait times were about 2 minutes across Georgia, according to the secretary of state’s office.

“We were anticipating a lot of people,” said Carla Sanders, an elections supervisor at New Bethel AMC Church in Lithonia. “We thought people would be bringing lawn chairs and books.”

Voters such as Lyndsey Sykes arrived at their polling places Tuesday morning prepared for the kind of lines they saw in prior high-turnout elections.

Her polling place was required by a judge to remain open late two years ago because of problems. Many other voters had to wait three hours or more in this summer’s primary that was hindered by the coronavirus and technical difficulties.

But Tuesday there was no line and no wait at Sykes' precinct at Annistown Elementary School.

“It took me longer to drive than go in,” Sykes said of her five-minute trip to the polls. “I don’t mind voting on Election Day. It’s something about the thrill of voting on the actual day.”

In areas where there were technical difficulties, state election officials dispatched technicians to attempt to fix the problems, and several of the polling places with issues came back online. The issue appeared to be with a dataset loaded on Poll Pad check-in tablets, but state election officials didn’t have more information Tuesday.

While the state hired nearly 2,000 technicians to deal with problems on the state’s new voting system, the issues in Morgan and Spalding counties needed higher levels of expertise to correct data issues, said Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

“We are having a successful election in Georgia today. It’s never been easier to vote in Georgia,” Raffensperger said. “That’s what everyone wants from government. They want it to be responsive to the people, and they want it to work.”

Election officials didn’t have turnout figures, but they were certain to be far lower than expected. Before Tuesday, they had estimated as many as 2 million voters could show up, adding to the 3.9 million people who voted early or absentee. It’s possible that turnout was closer to 1 million on Tuesday.

So many early voters made for a “slow and steady” Election Day, said Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system manager.

“We’re making elections boring again,” Sterling said. “There were more poll workers and machines than there were voters in the majority of polling locations today in metro Atlanta and around the state.”

After the chaotic primary, election officials put in a lot of work to make things run smoother for the general election.

They recruited over 50,000 poll workers, retrained them, launched an absentee ballot request website and hired additional tech support staff. Ninety-one new polling places opened in Fulton County, where the longest lines occurred during the primary.

In past elections, about half of Georgia voters cast their ballots in advance. This year, over two-thirds of all voters did so early and or by absentee ballot.

At Park Tavern in Piedmont Park, the site of a major meltdown during the primary, voters said there was a smooth process with no lines when polls opened.

“It was super easy. I was surprised,” said Lee Pressley, who walked to the precinct to vote. She said she voted on Election Day because “I’m a procrastinator and I have a busy work schedule."

Keene-Ann James said she showed up as polls opened because she wanted to make sure she got her chance to vote before heading to work. She tried to vote Friday, the last day of early voting, to avoid any issues, but was dissuaded by long lines.

“The lines were ridiculous,” she said. “I went to two different (early voting) locations, and the lines were hours long.”

With a record number of absentee ballots, some close races were likely to remain unsettled after Tuesday night.

Over 1.2 million voters returned absentee ballots, and most of them were scanned and opened in advance of Election Day so that they could be counted Tuesday night. But tens of thousands of absentee ballots received Monday and Tuesday won’t be tabulated until later in the week.

Early voting saved Georgia’s elections from another Election Day disaster, said Thomas Russell, a 21-year-old University of Georgia student who drove home to Decatur to vote Tuesday night.

“It’s 100% early voting. It’s so popular to early vote in this election,” Russell said. “I’d definitely say that’s why it went so smoothly.”

— Staff writers J.D. Capelouto, Zachary Hansen, Vanessa McCray and Leon Stafford contributed to this article.


Georgia Election Timeline

Nov. 13: Deadline for county election officials to finalize results.

Nov. 20: Statewide results certified.

Dec. 1: Runoff election, if necessary, for state offices.

Dec. 14: Electoral College meets to cast votes for president.

Jan. 5: Runoff election, if necessary, for federal offices.