Early voting changes in Georgia counties are suppressing turnout, advocates warn

Jane C. Timm

Before early voting got underway in Georgia's Senate runoffs this week, civil and voting rights advocates warned that changes and reductions to polling locations in certain counties could dampen turnout, particularly harming Black and Latino voters.

Now, several days in, those advocates say those fears are being realized.

More than a dozen groups publicly appealed to elections officials in Cobb and Hall counties this week while The New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan organization devoted to voter registration efforts and promoting civic engagement, took legal action over early voting issues in four other counties.

“During the first couple of days of early voting, the data has shown that the harm to voters remains severe, Cobb County has had extremely long lines — in some cases as long as two hours. At the same time, the overall turnout in Cobb has gone down,” Michael Pernick, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (LDF), said in an interview Thursday. He added that some counties without big cuts to early voting, including Fulton County, had seen an uptick in early voting compared to the same period in the general election.

In the letter to Cobb County officials, several civil rights groups joined the LDF and the ACLU of Georgia to say that cuts to early voting locations were driving two-hour lines and depressing turnout.

Cobb County, pivotal to President-elect Joe Biden's statewide victory, announced earlier this month that it would operate less than half of the early voting sites ahead of the Jan. 5 runoffs than it did for November's general election. It's the state's third-most populous county, with 760,000 residents.

Hall County, the tenth most populous county with just over 200,000 residents, announced this month that it would have four early voting sites, down from the eight it operated for the general election.

After advocates protested, Cobb County announced plans to move one site and add two more sites for the final week of the state’s three-week early voting period.

Staffing issues limited the county’s ability to open more early voting sites, the county said at the time. Officials rejected the argument from advocates that fewer locations would suppress votes, since historically turnout for runoff races is lower than for presidential elections.

In an email to NBC News, Cobb County Communications Director Ross Cavitt said the wait times were "less than an hour" at the county's five early voting sites and that they'd added additional check-in stations at each side to speed the voting process.

"We have been happy to see wait times at our five advance voting facilities well below what we experienced for the November General Election," Cavitt said.

After this story was published, the voting rights group Fair Fight told NBC News it had been tracking wait times in Cobb County through the county's online early voting wait time tracker. According to the group, wait times of more than an hour occurred at 100 different intervals during the first three days of early voting.

In the letter to Hall County officials, groups including Latino Justice, Hispanic Federation and LDF alleged that the reductions were depressing turnout and would disproportionately suppress Black and Latino voters in Hall County.

“Reducing the number of advance voting locations for the runoff election, when turnout is expected to be high and COVID-19 is raging, has already had a foreseeable detrimental impact on Hall County’s ability to provide smooth election operations and voters’ ability to vote safely and securely,” the groups said in a letter sent Wednesday night, citing similar turnout trends as Cobb County.

Hall County defended their early voting plans in an email.

Typically, Hall County Public Information Officer Katie Crumley said, there is just one location for all three weeks of early voting. For one day of Saturday voting during that period, the county opens three additional locations.

Crumley said Hall expanded to eight locations for the high-interest general election in November, but that four is sufficient to accommodate voters in the runoff election. Staffing the polls during a pandemic over the holiday season is difficult, she added.

Both letters sent to the Cobb and Hall County officials alleged a drop in the number of voters casting ballots in the first two days of early voting in the runoffs as compared to the November's election.

The advocates said data posted by the Georgia secretary of state's office showed early votes were down in Cobb County by nearly 5 percent in the first two days of early voting. Fulton, Gwinnett, and DeKalb counties did not make “significant cuts” to early voting, they said, and saw early voting up in the first two days by 25 percent, 40 percent, and 12 percent, respectively.

On Tuesday, the New Georgia Project, aided by Democrats’ top voting rights attorney Marc Elias, filed four lawsuits against four other counties: Clarke, Houston, Paulding, and Bibb County. The group alleged that those counties were illegally cutting early voting access mandated by law.

Clarke County officials have since announced they will add early voting on Saturday, Dec. 19.

Cobb and Hall were two of the four sizable Georgia counties to reduce the number of early voting sites. Cobb, which includes suburbs of Atlanta, is a key territory for Democrats with party control of the Senate on the line. Biden beat President Donald Trump by 14 points in Cobb, according to county election results.

The state's two Democratic Senate hopefuls, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, lead Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in the county by 10 points and 12 points in November, respectively.

Trump won Hall County Trump won Hall by 43 percentage points, with Senate Republican candidates dominating in the Senate races there, too.

The stakes of the Jan. 5 races are high. If both Democratic candidates are victorious, Democrats will control the chamber with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote. But if either Republican wins, the Senate remains in GOP hands, an outcome with consequences for Biden's first-term agenda.