Even before early-voting centers opened, long queues of socially distanced voters snaked through parking lots and down nearby streets in the predawn hours. Some people brought their own chairs as they waited, the lines inching slowly because of the limited number of people allowed inside to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
While the lines were longest in the state’s heavily Democratic strongholds in and around Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah and Macon, hours-long waits were also reported in smaller, more conservative counties, including Lowndes and Floyd, officials said. By the evening, at least 120,000 voters had cast their ballots, according to Jordan Fuchs, Georgia’s deputy secretary of state.
“This is a fantastic turnout election,” she said. “I’m on the floor.”
Voters in Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta, began queuing up as early as 4 a.m. — three hours before the polls opened Monday, and an unusually early start, officials said. By the afternoon, the main elections office in the county had an eight-hour wait, and two other locations reported five- to six-hour lines, officials said.
Voters said the crowds were generally patient, but some reported that they saw people walking away before casting their ballots.
“While we were there, many people were leaving. They just got tired. They just left,” said Ambrose King, a 73-year-old retiree in Suwanee, Ga., who waited five hours to vote at the George Pierce Park Community Recreation Center in Gwinnett County.
“The lines would be moving, but it wasn’t because people were voting; it was because people were getting out in front of us,” said King, who was reached through ProPublica’s Electionland voter tip line.
He said he and his wife were told that a limited number of voting machines and a temporary network connection issue contributed to the delays.
County officials said they were taken aback by the massive turnout, and tried without success to divert voters to some locations with shorter waits.
“It is very unusual. We started with lines and people have been arriving in steady streams. Columbus Day is not a county holiday, but it is a holiday for others,” said Joe Sorenson, spokesman for Gwinnett County. “That may have added to the voter enthusiasm.”
Fuchs rejected the notion that the long lines across the state Monday reflected major failures by either state or local election officials.
“We’ve had zero machine malfunctions or failures around the state,” she said, adding: “This is just extremely high turnout. You see these extremely long lines in historic elections. You saw it in 2008 when Obama was on the ballot, and you’re seeing it again.”
Fuchs said more polling places might have reduced lines in some locations, and she noted that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) pushed legislation to expand polling locations but did not succeed. He plans to submit the measure again next year, she said.
The wait times in Georgia reflect similar early-voting trends across the country, with voters saying they want to cast their ballots ahead of Election Day amid fears about coronavirus exposure and mail delays that may complicate the delivery of absentee ballots.
Half of all likely voters say they plan to vote early — a significant shift from previous years, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll. A majority of likely voters supporting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden plan to vote early, while a majority of likely voters supporting President Trump plan to vote on Election Day.
At the main office of Cobb County Elections and Registration in Marietta, lines wound outside the building, through a back-and-forth maze and finally finished at the edge of the parking lot early in the afternoon, near a gazebo where the weary took short breaks from the sun and humidity.
By late afternoon, voters in line there had waited 10 hours, according to Atlanta-based musician Johntá Austin, who tweeted at 4:48 p.m.: “Almost 10hrs in the voting line and still haven’t voted. I know many across the nation are probably experiencing this as well. Hang in there! I’m right here wit cha’ll.”
After 11 hours, he finally cast his ballot, he wrote on Instagram.
A festive atmosphere dominated at times, despite the tedium and the heat. The crowd cheered for voters exiting the building with their peach-adorned “I’m a Georgia voter” stickers. Some bowed or tipped their hats at the applause. Volunteers also passed around water bottles while friends and strangers alike held one another’s places in line for bathroom breaks.
Everlean Rutherford, 39, passed the time with her friends Melissa and Rufus Wingfield. She had arrived at 10:05 a.m. and at 2 p.m. was maybe halfway toward her chance to make her voice heard.
“I’ve been bored,” she admitted, adding that she had counted up to 400 people standing in the line.
At 3 p.m. Monday at the voting site, a man toward the back of the line spotted a friend in the front. “When did you get here!?” he yelled. She responded, “At 7!” She still hadn’t voted.
Dozens of early-voting locations opened in metro Atlanta on Monday morning, including the arena where the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks play and one of the city’s best-known art museums.
Most will be open for three weeks of in-person voting, in addition to the option of voting by mail as well as on Election Day.
Temporary glitches with voting machines at Georgia’s largest early-voting site, at State Farm Arena, led to delays there, with some voters posting on social media that problems with the machines led to an additional hour in line.
“While early voting is going well overall, we are experiencing technical issues at @StateFarmArena that are causing delays in voting at that location,” Fulton County officials posted Monday morning on Twitter. “We apologize for the inconvenience. Technicians are on-site to help address the issue. Thank you for your patience.”
County officials said about an hour and half after the tweet that the voting machine issue was resolved.
In Fulton County, which encompasses much of metro Atlanta, officials said there was “very high turnout,” with lines at almost every one of its 30 voting locations and two mobile sites.
At the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in west Atlanta, retired educator James Tyler, 69, stood near the back of a winding line at 9 a.m. He said he was prepared to wait all day if that’s what it took, and tried to think of a line that long he had seen in his decades of voting.
“I remember seeing long lines when I lived in Dallas during Reagan’s first election,” said Tyler. “But that was on Election Day.”
Tyler came armed with snacks, a jacket and a book to help pass the time. Minutes later, rain began to fall in the parking lot where he stood with hundreds of other eager voters.
Willis reported from Atlanta and Marietta, Ga.