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Georgia’s Early Vote Soars 142% After GOP Attacks Mailed Ballots

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 10/20/2020 Margaret Newkirk

(Bloomberg) -- The record-smashing crowds casting ballots early in battleground Georgia owe their size at least in part to people changing their minds about voting by mail after President Donald Trump and other Republicans spent months criticizing the method.

In the first eight days of voting, nearly 1.7 million Georgians voted absentee or in-person, a 142% increase from the same period in the 2016 race, state data show. Of those, more than 980,000 voted in person.

Long lines are forming at polling places across the country, including Florida, where in-person voting started Monday.

A look at the first day of voting in Georgia showed just how many ditched their mail-in ballots. On Oct. 12, about 25,000 of the 128,000 voters who swamped the state’s polling stations signed affidavits to cancel mail ballots at the same time, according to University of Florida elections expert Michael McDonald.

The trend continued all week, said officials in metro Atlanta counties and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who asked switchers to cut it out. He said the extra time needed to cancel mail ballots was aggravating long lines.

“What I would really encourage is that the 1.6 million people who requested absentee ballots actually send them in, and not show up in person,” he said at a news conference Wednesday.

a group of people standing around a fire hydrant: Georgia Residents Cast Ballots As Early Voting For U.S. Presidential Election Begins © Bloomberg Georgia Residents Cast Ballots As Early Voting For U.S. Presidential Election Begins

Residents wait in line outside an early voting location in Atlanta on Oct. 12.

Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg

Georgia was among three Southern swing states that began voting last week. Texas and North Carolina also set records. In Texas, Harris County -- home of Houston -- saw as many voters on its first day as Georgia did statewide.

Both North Carolina and Texas have had fights over mail-in voting more bitter than those in Georgia. In North Carolina, where thousands of mail ballots had been kept in limbo by legal challenges, local election officials have been quietly reminding voters that they can vote early and cancel mail ballots.

But Georgia has become a must-watch state as the U.S. moves toward Nov. 3. Not only is the presidential race unusually competitive in what has been a reliably Republican state, but there are two U.S. Senate races, both too close to call.

Much to Prove

Georgia also arguably had the most to prove as voting began.

Its reputation for difficulties at the polls took hold in the 2018 gubernatorial race and were worsened this year by a disastrous June primary. Equipment failures, untrained workers and a paucity of polling places forced residents to stand in line for hours while the Covid-19 pandemic was surging.

The fiasco spurred corporate Georgia to step in. It started with the Atlanta Hawks NBA franchise, which announced after the primary debacle that it would transform its massive arena into the state’s largest early voting location and train staff to work the polls.

Other businesses kicked in, many organized by a group called GA Voting Works. They asked Raffensperger what would be needed to prevent another disaster like the primary. His answer: 3,000 trained technical workers to staff polling places, ballot drop boxes across the state, Plexiglas shields for work stations, huge supplies of sanitizer, and a robust advertising campaign to urge voters to vote early in order to reduce lines on Election Day.

The list of Atlanta-based companies and business groups that kicked in to provide those things included Delta Air Lines Inc., Cox Enterprises, Home Depot Inc., Coca-Cola and the state chamber of commerce as well as the Hawks.

Ad Campaign

Coke took charge of the advertising campaign, which is running on TV and radio, and plastered across social media platforms and buses. It was a first for Coke, said Danielle Henry, head of Coca-Cola North America’s advertising content.

The ads’ theme: Compared with the rest of 2020, early voting is easy.

On the first day of early voting, the pitch appeared to have worked so well it sabotaged itself. Lines were even worse than in June.

The crush of voters overwhelmed a database used to verify their status and check them in. It repeatedly crashed, aggravating delays. One man in Cobb County in suburban Atlanta told TV reporters he had waited 11 hours to vote, although Cobb election officials said the longest wait that had been reported to them was only nine.

Calls of voter suppression followed, but Raffensperger said it was the turnout itself that gummed up the works, causing the equivalent of a rush-hour traffic jam. He also said people with mail-in ballots showing up to vote in person made things worse.

The reasons for scrapping the mail-in plan varied. Some voters hadn’t yet received them. Others didn’t trust that their votes would be counted, which election advocates say is a higher risk than with in-person voting, because it’s harder to fix mistakes. And for weeks, Trump and his fellow Republicans have been signaling their intent to challenge mailed ballots.

Voting Early

Both political parties and some election advocates were urging their voters to show up early last week. The campaign of Democratic nominee Joe Biden held a Zoom meeting to encourage it. So did Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff and voting advocate and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams: In a Zoom town hall, Abrams walked viewers through the process of canceling mail ballots and voting in person.

“If you have not received your ballots, they are going to pull up the fact that you asked for one, and you have to sign an affidavit saying you want to cancel it,” Abrams said. “Be very clear that they give you the affidavit and they will let you vote in person.”

The long lines of Oct. 12 didn’t scare off voters for the rest of the week. And lines subsided after Wednesday, though voters still were waiting an hour or more at many locations, with the Hawks stadium being a notable exception. Some counties added more machines. Others added polling places. Software that crashed due to the volume was upgraded.

“We cannot be deterred by the difficulties,” Abrams said, “and what we are seeing right now is incredibly impressive.”

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