ATLANTA (AP) — Tuesday’s election in Georgia marked the biggest test yet of new voting restrictions enacted by Republicans in one of the nation’s most important battleground states as voters decide hotly contested primary races for governor and the U.S. Senate.
Election officials, poll workers and voters navigated new rules put in place by the GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican governor after the 2020 presidential election amid a concerted effort by former President Donald Trump to cast doubt on his loss with unsubstantiated claims of fraud.
They added restrictions to mail voting, limited drop boxes and changed rules that could make it harder for voters who run into problems on Election Day to have their ballots counted. That’s despite no evidence of widespread fraud that would have changed the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, a state that Democrat Joe Biden won by about 11,800 votes.
Voting groups were watching for long lines, voter confusion, problems with voting equipment or any other hitch that could hinder voters from casting their ballots. By early afternoon, no major or systemwide issue had been reported in Georgia. There were sporadic reports of polling locations opening late, minor equipment troubles and some voters finding themselves at the wrong voting location.
Election Day capped a record-setting early voting period in Georgia. Nearly 860,000 ballots had been cast through Friday, the majority of which were done in-person as opposed to mail. State election officials said the early turnout marked a 168% increase from the 2018 primary and a 212% increase from 2020.
Republicans have touted the early voting numbers as evidence that the Georgia elections law, known as Senate Bill 202, has not harmed voters.
“Now we are seeing the hard evidence that as we all knew, the hysteria was never based on fact to begin with,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Shame, shame on the Democrats who pushed the big lie that a grand scheme was afoot to prevent millions of Americans from voting. It was never true.”
Since primaries tend to draw more experienced voters, it may be too soon to draw any sweeping conclusions about the effects of the Georgia law. In the fall, more first-time and infrequent voters — those who are more likely to encounter challenges at the polls — will be casting ballots.
Georgia’s primary also was expected to draw far higher turnout among Republicans because of the closely contested GOP contests for governor, U.S. Senate and secretary of state. Democrats running for governor and U.S. Senate were uncontested.
“That voters have been able to overcome these restrictions does not change the fact that SB202 places cumbersome, confusing and — in some cases — inhumane barriers to the ballot box,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “Nothing I have seen so far has changed the fact that Georgia could have celebrated the historic turnout we saw in 2020 and made voting more accessible.”
Georgia was among three states, along with Alabama and Arkansas, holding regular primaries Tuesday. Texas has runoff elections for the GOP primary for attorney general and for a Democratic congressional seat, while Minnesota is holding a special primary for the seat of former Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died in February.
Georgia —- along with other states that have held early primaries — has seen a dramatic decline in the use of mailed ballots since the record numbers reported in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when voters were seeking alternatives to crowded polling places.
Election officials in Atlanta’s Fulton County credited the large number of early voters with a relatively smooth Election Day morning. Some 91,000 voters in the heavily Democratic county had voted either by mail or in-person during the state’s early voting period.
“I have not heard of any long lines at this point,” Nadine Williams, interim director of registration and elections, told reporters. “The bulk of the voters came out for advance voting.”
The new Georgia elections law made several changes. It made it harder to request a mail ballot by shortening the period voters can apply for one and added new ID requirements to the applications and the ballot itself. Voters could request a ballot online two years ago, but now they must print or obtain a paper form, sign it in ink and send it in by mail, email or fax. Trump’s unsubstantiated attacks on mailed ballots also have taken a toll on voter confidence.
As of Monday, about 72,000 mail ballots had been returned out of nearly 97,000 requested by Georgia voters. About 1,300 applications were rejected for arriving past the new, earlier deadline, or about 1.4% of all applications submitted. Those voters, if able, can still vote in person on Tuesday.
Texas primary voters in March were tripped up by new identification requirements, resulting in an abnormally high rate of mail ballot rejections. Lawmakers in Alabama and Arkansas also shortened the period for those requesting absentee ballots.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.