Why early voting matters more than ever in Georgia

10/7/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Fulton County department of registration and elections employees work on securing each voting machine at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Wednesday, October 7, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The music blaring behind him was growing louder, but Jon Ossoff was intent on getting his point across at a weekend stop in south DeKalb.

“Don’t wait until the last minute. Don’t put this thing off. November 3 isn’t just election day — it’s the last chance to vote,” said Ossoff, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, his voice rising above the din at a Stonecrest mega-church. “The election is happening right now.”

Though his words were aimed at fellow Democrats, his plea was echoed by Republican contenders who crisscrossed the state ahead of the start of early-voting in Georgia. The three-week period that begins Monday is always a key time for campaigns, but this year it’s more crucial than ever during a still-raging coronavirus pandemic. Candidates are pushing Georgians to lock in their votes long before Election Day — when the risks of long lines and infection could deter people from polling places.

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At a GOP meet-and-greet in a warehouse in the solidly-Republican town of Dahlonega, congressional candidate Andrew Clyde urged his supporters to vote early and come up with 10 friends to persuade to do the same.

"Connect with those folks on Monday and say, ‘Hey, are you going to vote? When are you going to vote? Can I give you a ride to the polls?’ Clyde said. “This district can make a difference if we really take it seriously.”

Election officials predict about 5 million voters will participate in this election — nearly 1 million more than in the last presidential election. Polls show roughly two-thirds could cast their ballots early — either by mail or in-person – during a pandemic that’s reshaped every facet of American life.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. (right), and his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, made in-person campaign appearances in metro Atlanta on Saturday, October 10, 2020. (Photos: Steve Schaefer / Special to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

And with polls showingcompetitive races across the ballot, there’s more attention on Georgia’s campaign trail. Top surrogates from both presidential campaigns are set to crisscross the state. Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, will visit Atlanta and Columbus Monday while Donald Trump Jr. plans stops in Savannah and Kennesaw.

Georgia’s airwaves, too, are brimming with campaign ads. More than $160 million has been spent on tv spots for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate races, and Biden’s campaign recently snapped up $4 million in ads, the latest sign he’s competing in a state Democratic White House hopefuls last captured in 1992.

ExploreGeorgia is setting records in campaign TV spending

Some Republicans are expressing a been-there-done-that attitude. Alec Poitevint, a longtime top Georgia GOP official, recounted tight polls in past Georgia statewide races as he stood waiting at U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s campaign stop in deeply-conservative Gainesville.

“We win close elections. What I mean by that is Georgia is a state where we have hard-fought elections. They go down to the wire," said Poitevint. "Everyone works hard. And we are ultimately successful. I’m not fretting about this at all, but we have to keep working hard.”

His optimism was not universal. Seanie Zappendorf, the chair of the Dawson County GOP, fears some voters will tune out the election.

“It’s keeping me up at night. We have events almost every other day to get people to come out. Last weekend, we handed out 300 signs," she said. "But we’ve got to worry about complacency. Even though we’re in such a Republican county, we can’t rest.”

Volunteer Allison Slocum loads campaign signs into a car at a yard signs giveaway at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest Saturday, October 10, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Democrats are equally antsy. Lori Buff was among dozens who lined up outside state Rep. Bee Nguyen’s home in east Atlanta Saturday to pick up yard signs for Ossoff, Senate candidate Raphael Warnock and other Democratic contenders.

“We have to encourage people not to be complacent and to show how important the vote is — and how politics affects so much about our lives,” she said. “And it’s not just the president. It’s the down-ticket races, too.”

“All hands on deck”

Overall, roughly even numbers of voters are expected to vote early, absentee and on Election Day. Broken down by party, about 40% of voters who identified as Republicans and 33% of Democrats said they plan to cast their ballots during the early voting period, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll.

Republicans want to make sure their voters follow-through, which is why candidates from the top to the bottom of the ticket showed up for the Fulton County Republican breakfast Saturday, including Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, along with Karen Handel and Betty Price, who both lost re-election in 2018 to Democratic challengers but are back to challenge for their old seats, Handel in the 6th congressional district and Price in a Roswell-based area.

After giving their stump speeches in a glass-walled room overlooking a rainy golf course, they told activists to focus on turning out voters as soon as possible. Still three weeks from Election Day , the pleas had the same urgency of the frenzied final weekend.

“It’s great to sit in this lovely place," said Price. “But we’ve got to go out and get a little wet. You’ve got to go out and get sore feet. We’ve got to get sore throats, we’ve got to work like the dickens between now and the end of the election.”

ExploreAbsentee or in-person? Georgia voters divided by political party

Along with their marching order, activists left with postcards to send to a group of voters the GOP believes could put them over the edge: those who voted for Trump in 2016, but stayed home in 2018 when Democrats flipped the 6th district along with 13 seats in the state legislature.

If they can just get those voters to the polls starting Monday, they said, Republicans can win those seats back. Democrats, of course, will do everything they can to turn voters out and hold those seats and deliver victories all the way up the ballot.

“Making sure your voters vote is your number one job as a party,” said Rich Thompson, a vice-chair of the Fulton County GOP. “Right now, it’s all hands on deck.”

Senator David Perdue supporters listen to him speak at a canvass kick-off event at the Republican Party Headquarters in Marietta Saturday, October 10, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this report.

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How early voting works

Like ballots cast on Nov. 3, those cast during early voting will be counted on election night. Voters will see those results as they’re reported from polling places across Georgia.

But the outcomes of close races – including for president and U.S. Congress – might not be known for the days it will take to count all absentee ballots. State law gives county election officials 10 days before certifying election results, and then Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will finalize the election within seven days afterward, by Nov. 20.

All in-person early voters will use Georgia’s new voting system, which combines familiar touchscreens with the addition of printed-out paper ballots. Voters will be able to review their choices on the paper printout before inserting it into an optical scanner.

The early voting experience will also be different in years past because of coronavirus-related safety precautions.

Lines are guaranteed at crowded polling places, with voters spaced 6-feet apart and only a few able to cast ballots at a time.

Voters will be separated from poll workers by Plexiglass shields when they check in, and equipment will be frequently wiped down with sanitizing fluid. Voters will be provided with styluses if they don’t want to use their fingers on touchscreens.

— Mark Niesse

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