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Commentary: In Georgia, long lines to vote — but determined optimism, too

By Erin B. Logan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Op Eds

Earlier this month, I drove 626 miles from Washington, D.C., to my parents' home in suburban Atlanta to vote.

Like other young people, I am a nomad of sorts. I twice moved cross-country this past year and haven't set up roots anywhere. So, I'm avoiding changing my voter registration until I know my permanent residence.

Besides, voting in Georgia is extremely important. The Peach State is a crucial battleground this election. Some polls show President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden tied. And the two Senate races here are competitive.

I voted on Oct. 19 in Lawrenceville, a suburb about 30 miles outside Atlanta. I arrived at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds polling site around 8 a.m., one hour after opening. To my delight, the process took 13 minutes and 51 seconds.

But my ease with voting is far from the norm.

In the Democratic primaries this summer, some Georgians endured long lines to vote. The secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, blamed the long wait times on the actions of local county officials. Nonetheless, the wait spurred allegations of voter suppression, particularly troubling in a Deep South state with a history of disenfranchising Black voters through poll taxes, literacy tests and removing names from rolls.

As early voting began this month, some Georgians waited as long as 10 hours to vote.

Raffensperger attributed these lines to record turnout. On Oct. 12, the first day of in-person voting, 128,590 Georgians cast ballots, a 42% increase from the same day in the last presidential cycle. As of noon Thursday, 2,201,803 Georgians had cast ballots, a 127% increase in total turnout to date.

Voters I spoke with expressed deep frustration with the voting process. However, they also showed determination and optimism about their ability to impact this election.

Matt Stevens, a 40-year-old entrepreneur and educator, anticipated a wait.

He recalled how enthusiastic people were in 2008 and that he then waited for a little over two hours to vote. With that in mind, on the morning of Oct. 12 he ate a hearty breakfast, grabbed a chair and drove to a government center in South Fulton.

When he arrived, he saw an estimated at least 300 to 400 people in front of him.

"I was not deterred," Stevens told me.

He tweeted a selfie to memorialize the beginning of his journey and waited.

Though he brought no snacks, the weather was pleasant. And he chatted with other voters. He was shocked, however, after he got inside to see only 14 voting booths, he told me.

By the time he voted, he had waited for 5 hours and 7 minutes.

Stevens, who backs Biden, is appalled at Trump's handling of the pandemic and believes it is crucial to vote him out of office.

Charlsie Niemiec, a 32-year-old freelance marketing strategist, shares that sense of urgency.

Niemiec arrived at the Ponce De Leon Library in the Virginia Highlands section of Atlanta just before 10 a.m. Oct. 12. The line snaked around the block.

"They kept saying it would only be one more hour," Niemiec told me. "The line was not moving."

Niemiec didn't bring a chair and was grateful to local residents who gave water and Krispy Kreme doughnuts to waiting voters.

"The morale was high and the community was very supportive," she told me. "There was a lot of determination and a lot of patience."

Determined to have her voice heard, she waited four hours.

"I haven't seen human decency from the Trump administration in four years," she told me. Trump has "poured kerosene across the nation with his vile comments. If he wins this election, he will strike a match and the very foundations of democracy will go up in flames."

What also kept Niemiec determined to vote was spending most of July in bed after contracting the novel coronavirus.

 

"I was in complete misery," she told me.

Trump's callous disregard for the virus "pushed me over the edge," Niemiec said. "I told myself, 'You need to do this for the 215,000 people who have died from COVID," she said. "If I had to stand in line for 14 hours, I would've stayed there."

Ray Charles, 38, who works in property management and lives in Ellenwood, an Atlanta suburb, was determined to be among the first in the state to vote. The virus earlier this year claimed his father's life.

"I want my dad's voice to be heard," he told me.

He arrived at a polling site in the suburb of Stockbridge, Ga., with his wife, Alexis Henshaw, around 20 minutes after it opened on Monday. The couple expected to wait one hour.

But then, another hour passed. By the fifth hour, they got the chair out.

They waited nine hours in total.

Charles considered voting by mail. But when he started hearing about discord within the Postal Service, "that got to us."

"It's hard to trust any federal agency at this point," he told me. "It seems like they're being shackled by the president. The only way to vote is the old-fashioned way. Go to the voting booth and make sure it's counted."

Charles, who is Indian American, said that it's "very distressing and disheartening to hear that in certain populous areas with certain people" there were long waits. At his polling center, about 25 miles from the Atlanta city center, those voting were overwhelmingly Black.

All of these voters live in greater metropolitan Atlanta. Despite our proximity, their experience was not like mine. I was in and out within 15 minutes.

I voted in Gwinnett County, a classic American suburb named after a slaveholder and where the iconic hip-hop trio Migos originated. I knew I'd have a short wait thanks to a county website listing the wait time. Residents in other counties don't have the same technology.

My county is also very diverse.

Non-Hispanic white people in 2000 made up nearly 67% of the population. They now account for just over 35%, according to census data. Meanwhile, Black people make up nearly 30% of the population here, Asian people account for nearly 13%, and Latino people make up nearly 22%.

As Gwinnett grew more diverse over the years, its political affiliation changed. After a string of back-to-back Republican presidential victories, Hillary Clinton carried Gwinnett by nearly six points in 2016. Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams carried my home county by 14 points in the gubernatorial election two years later.

Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist at Georgia State University, said it's too early to say if what's playing out in Georgia is voter suppression.

McCoy attributed long lines in the first week of early voting to enthusiastic voters, technical glitches, the pandemic and poll workers having to cancel absentee ballots. (The secretary of state made a concerted push to send out absentee voting applications. Those who requested it and went to polling sites had to wait for poll workers to connect with the state and cancel those ballots before being approved to vote in person.)

McCoy said it is too soon to label what's happening in Georgia as voter suppression. Early voting is only occurring in a few places in each county. So, McCoy and other experts have to wait until Election Day, when all polling sites open, to compare wait times.

I share McCoy's caution. We will have to wait and see how this plays out between now and Election Day. For now, no matter which state you live in, make a plan to vote and execute it.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Erin B. Logan is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

(c)2020 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

 

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