ATLANTA — A mass of motivated Georgia voters overloaded polling places on the first day of early voting Monday, many lining up before doors opened to make sure their ballots would be counted.
They were in for long waits, some exceeding eight hours. Computer glitches at several polling places, including a huge voting location inside State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta, only lengthened delays.
The start of three weeks of early voting showed how the combination of high turnout and problems with election equipment could also result in problems on a busy Election Day. A record number of Georgia voters, more than 5 million, are expected to cast ballots in the general election.
Voters filled parking lots and lined sidewalks, wrapping around libraries and recreation centers.
Many excited voters said they were resigned to waiting in lines, guaranteeing their in-person votes would be among the first cast.
“It’s the first day, so people are trying to get a jump on things,” Michael Benefield said as he navigated an hourslong line at Gwinnett County’s Mountain Park location. “Just based on the climate of the country, folks are trying to get out early and make their intentions known.”
Problems with voter check-in computers held up voters at scattered locations across metropolitan Atlanta, issues that could spell disaster if they happened again on Election Day, Nov. 3. The technical difficulties posed less of a danger Monday since voters will have other opportunities to cast their ballots.
At State Farm Arena, lines stopped when voters received an “invalid card” error when inserting green voter access cards into touchscreens.
Poll workers and tech support staff held up lines to fix the check-in tablets rather than issue emergency paper ballots, which are required to be available at every voting location.
“It was a little frustrating,” said Adrienne Crowley, who waited an hour and a half to vote at State Farm Arena. But she said she didn’t even think about getting out of line.
Poll workers corrected the problem by rebooting the arena’s 60 voter check-in tablets and reimporting voter information, Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron said.
“We expected to have lines on the first day,” Barron said. “A lot of people have been anxious to vote for a long time.”
Election officials predicted more voters Monday than on any Day One of early voting in Georgia history. There were over 90,000 voters on the first day of early voting in the 2016 presidential election.
“We’re seeing extreme and tremendous turnout on the ground and around the state,” Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm around this election, and you’re going to see high turnout. Because of that, we’re going to see lines.”
Officials corrected most computer problems early in the day, but lines remained.
Voters said they wouldn’t be deterred.
Danielle Driscoll of Smyrna said she was surprised to see the line snaking around the South Cobb Regional Library.
“It’s a positive and a negative,” Driscoll said. “It’s a positive because people are voting, but it’s a negative because I don’t want to wait in line.”
After five minutes in line, she decided to leave and return another time.
“Maybe voting on the first day wasn’t the best idea,” Driscoll said.
Smyrna resident Arlevia Bell just moved to Georgia from Louisiana in July and said she was frustrated at the long line outside the library.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we are just now moving,” she said after standing in the same spot for over 15 minutes.
At Lucky Shoals Park near Norcross, the wait was more than an hour Monday morning.
Janice Elliott-Howard, 54, said she was encouraged — not surprised — by the lines. For her, voting in person was an easy decision.
“I think it’s the safest way to vote. Safe and then you know your vote is in,” Elliott-Howard said. “I don’t trust putting it in a box or leaving it up to the mail.”
Gwinnett officials said high voter interest caused lines, with some people already waiting at 4 a.m., three hours before polls opened.
All registered voters are eligible to participate in early voting, allowing them to pick a time that fits their schedule and avoid lines on Nov. 3. Voters must cast their ballots in the county where they’re registered, but they can choose any location within their county.
Prominent early voting sites include a former Atlanta Hawks star’s training facility, government offices and even a bus filled with voting touchscreens. At the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, at least 130 voters waited to cast their ballots when polls opened.
Spaced 6 feet apart, the vast majority of voters wore masks, with some exceptions.
Unprecedented interest and social distancing requirements led to lines, but election officials said their goal is to keep lines moving and avoid problems such as those seen in Georgia’s primary.
In the June 9 election, high turnout, poll worker shortages and difficulties with voting equipment led to waits of over three hours in some areas.
In-person early voters will join the 439,000 Georgia voters who have already returned their absentee ballots. By the time Election Day finally arrives, more than two-thirds of the 5 million state voters projected to cast ballots will have already voted.
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.
A judge’s ruling late Sunday allowed Georgia to continue using the voting system, turning down an effort from election security advocates to switch to paper ballots filled out by hand.
The early voting experience is different from years past because of coronavirus-related safety precautions.
Voters kept their distance from each other, and they were separated from poll workers by plexiglass shields when they check in. Elections equipment was frequently wiped down and sanitized. Voters were provided with styluses if they didn’t want to use their fingers on touchscreens.
There are over 60 early voting locations in metro Atlanta’s four core counties, including more than 30 in Fulton County alone.
Voters can find early voting sites and hours on county elections websites or on the state’s My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.
Early voting lasts until Oct. 30, including a Saturday on Oct. 24.
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)