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Record turnout and long lines mark first day of early voting in Georgia

<i>Cheney Orr/Reuters</i><br/>A line of early voters stretches outside the building as early voting begins for the midterm elections in Columbus
Cheney Orr/Reuters
A line of early voters stretches outside the building as early voting begins for the midterm elections in Columbus

By Gregory Krieg, CNN

Georgia midterm voters turned out in record numbers on the first day of early in-person voting, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said on Tuesday.

More than 131,000 people cast ballots on Monday, the state’s top elections official said, up from roughly 71,000 back in 2018, an 85% increase from the last midterm vote back in 2018. There are more than 7 million active voters on the state rolls, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Raffensperger, who is up for election this year and effectively overseeing his own contest, said “reports of long lines were minimal” but also acknowledged that “there were some reports of voters waiting in line for more than 30 minutes from a few popular voting locations in metro areas.”

Georgia is home to a series of critical midterm races for the US Senate, US House and statewide posts from governor to secretary of state. Its new elections law allows in-person early voting for parts of the next three weeks — no fewer than 17 days in all — through Election Day on November 8. But following the implementation of a restrictive new voting law, which made it harder to vote through the mail, civil rights groups are paying close attention to this first general election under the revised guidelines. Among the changes: Poll locations are required to be open on weekdays and at least two Saturdays in the run-up to Election Day — but must be closed on the final weekend and Monday before.

An earlier version of the controversial measure had sought to block all Sunday voting, but the version that was enacted by state Republicans last year allows it at the discretion of the counties.

Though the raw vote totals on Monday exceeded some expectations, wait times at polling places in some Atlanta-area suburbs were reportedly more than an hour. Some of those wait times are due to a brief failure of the state’s voter registration system, called eNet, which has caused issues in the past. Officials said the system was quickly back up and running — they have not determined the cause of the eNet issue, but say it was not caused by an outside attack — and insisted overall delays were minimal.

But some watchdog organizations were less optimistic going forward and pointed to the state’s strict new law, which makes absentee balloting more difficult, as a factor in the delays. Faith Works, a group formed by religious leaders to combat voter suppression, said it had contacted the Justice Department to flag its concerns.

“Faith Works has received multiple reports from congregants around the state regarding significant irregularities at the polls, especially in heavily African-American communities such as North Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, and Henry,” the group said in a statement.

Turnout has been expected to top the state’s last midterm figures but also to fall short of 2020, a presidential election year. Joe Biden won Georgia in 2020, becoming the first victorious Democratic presidential nominee to win since Bill Clinton won in 1992. Then, in early January 2021, Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated a pair of Republican Senate incumbents in runoff elections to deliver their party a majority in the chamber — and Democrats a governing trifecta in Washington.

But an uneven economy, headlined by inflation and rising gas prices, along with the traditional backlash against a first-term president, has endangered Democratic control of Congress. The fate of the Senate, which is split 50-50, could turn on Warnock’s contest with Republican nominee Herschel Walker — a close race that has recently been clouded by controversy over allegations Walker, a staunch opponent of abortion, paid a woman to have the procedure. (CNN has not independently verified the claim, which Walker denies.)

In the House, where Republicans only need to flip a handful of seats to retake the majority, the 2nd Congressional District in southwest Georgia is home to perhaps the only competitive partisan race in the Deep South. Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop, who was first elected three decades ago, is facing a challenge from Republican Chris West, for whom House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy headlined a Monday fundraiser that, according to an invitation, was expected to include Georgia GOP figures including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and former Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Voting also began in key statewide races, beginning with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign for a second term in a rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Kemp has led in polling of the race and clashed with Abrams during a Monday night debate in Atlanta.

Abrams again denounced the law and, picking up a line of attack from their first contest, described Kemp as having “assiduously denied access to the right to vote.” More recently, Abrams borrowed from her criticisms of four years ago, calling Kemp — who was secretary of state during the 2018 campaign — “the chief architect of modern day voter suppression.”

Kemp countered by pointing to high turnout numbers over the past few elections and said the law made it “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, is also on the ballot. He is being challenged by state Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democrat, and Libertarian Ted Metz, who ran for governor four years ago.

This will be the first major election held in Georgia since the enactment of the new voting law was passed last year. The law prompted an outcry from civil rights and corporate leaders. Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta in response to the law — which includes a shorter window for voters to request mail-in ballots, new voter identification requirements and a cap on drop boxes during early voting — which critics said was designed to suppress minority turnout following Democrats’ sweep of the presidential and US Senate elections.

Even before the mixed reviews came in on Monday, Democrats said that high turnout should not be taken as evidence that concerns over the new law were unfounded.

“There is no question that SB 202 (the new law) makes voting harder — and that is the intent,” Warnock said in his Friday debate with Walker. “And the fact that many of our voters are overcoming this hardship doesn’t undermine that reality.”

The election also follows a federal court ruling against a suit filed by Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Abrams after the 2018 election, that had asserted that Georgia’s “exact match” voter registration policy, absentee ballot cancellation practices and registration inaccuracies were unconstitutional and in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

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