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Early voting meets long lines, communication hitches

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/25/04

Early voters, some waiting for hours, packed polling places across Georgia this morning to cast a ballot in national, state and local races.

In roughly two-thirds of all counties, including Gwinnett and Cobb, lines grew longer as elections workers struggled to communicate with the state voter registration database.

The problem had to do with a DSL line that allows counties to access a master voter registration database, said Chris Riggall, spokesman for Secretary of State Cathy Cox. As a result, counties had to resort to slower connections to the database, or manually check in voters using paper lists. The problem was corrected shortly before 11 a.m.

At the east Cobb polling location, voters waited more than 90 minutes to vote. Voting went smoothly at Gwinnett's single early voting poll when it opened at 8 a.m., but things quickly deteriorated.

Gwinnett voters should expect to wait at least an hour and a half, said Elections Supervisor Lynn Ledford. She said lines could get even worse between noon and 2 p.m.

Those in line when the poll closes at 5 p.m. will be allowed to vote no matter how long it takes, Ledford said. Senior citizens and the disabled are being allowed to go to the front of the line, which stretches from the elections office at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center down the hall to the building's main escalators.

John Sullivan, director of the Fulton County elections office, said the wait at the Sandy Springs location was at least two hours and in downtown Atlanta, about 45 minutes. The line at the downtown site, the county elections office on Pryor Street, started before the poll opened at 8:30 a.m.

"When I looked out this morning, there was a line outside the building," Sullivan said. About 500 people showed up at Fulton's three locations by 11 a.m., he said.

"With the presidential election and all of the registrations we've taken, 155,000, this year, we knew this was an election people were interested in," Sullivan said.

He estimated that Fulton County's turnout could be about 72 percent this year. The average Fulton turnout over the past three decades has been 65 percent in presidential elections.

Betty Jordan, supervisor of the north Fulton polling place in Sandy Springs, said the wait was about 30 minutes when polls opened, but stretched to more than two hours by noon.

"This is twice as many people as we expected," said Jordan as more than 200 early voters, many reading books and magazines, waited to use the 16 voting machines.

Roswell resident Howard Goldmacher joked he would be able to finish the detective novel he was reading by the time he got to vote.

"Today is a delightful day to be outside. The Republic is worth it," said Goldmacher.

Tonya Sparks, 34, of Dunwoody, decided to vote another day once she saw the hundred or so voters lined up outside.

"It's a good thing because [it indicates] people are serious about this election," said Sparks.

James Arnold, 61, of College Park, a retired educator waiting to vote at the south Fulton polling place, was among those who thought they were beating the crowds.

"I've been listening to the news, and I heard throughout the U.S. it's expected to be a mass turnout, and since I'm a retiree I figured I would beat the rush," he said.

He also came out early because he thought this was a very important election.

"People who you know are losing jobs. Middle class people are losing ground. ... Gas prices are just escalating. Things are not in sync with the way it was years ago," said Arnold. "Why would you destroy the middle-class?"

"The rich man is just getting richer and the poor are getting poorer," he added.

Donna Lloyd, 58, of College Park, a school bus assistant, said, "I think it's probably the most important election of my lifetime. I think it's for the soul of the nation."

"I'm a Christian. We're either going to go back to God's principles ... or the other side of the spectrum," she said.

She added that this president may choose two or three members of the Supreme Court, and therefore influence the next several decades.

Lines were shorter in other metro counties.

Henry County elections supervisor Jenny Evans was on the telephone non-stop Monday morning, repeating directions to people interested in the latest convenience craze early voting.

"I'm losing my voice," Evans said during a momentary pause between telephone rings.

Repetition was a constant thread among the dozen poll workers as scores of people took advantage of the weeklong opportunity to vote early in races for president, the U.S. Congress, county school board and government seats and referendum items.

"Just fill out the highlighted areas please. Just fill out the highlighted areas please. Just fill out the highlighted areas please. I'm going to go home dreaming that," said poll worker Debbie Higgs.

The polls at the county's election office opened at 8 a.m. Henry County used one location for early voting, a decision they may reconsider by 2006. By 9 a.m., about 150 people voted, county officials estimated. The first person in line was Kenneth Stone, 49, a technical support manager for the state Department of Corrections. He arrived at 7:15 a.m., waiting under a metal canopy in the predawn chill in front of about two dozen people.

"It's on my way to work," Stone, a McDonough resident, explained. "I figured I'd take care of this right now."

The average wait was 25 minutes. Voters were asked to show their driver's license and asked to fill out a form verifying their address. The information was checked out on computers connected to the state's voter database. When the computer system temporarily disconnected, poll workers checked the information against a paper list of the county's 92,000 registered voters.

Retired U.S. Army officer Paul Cousins arrived at 6:45 a.m., thinking the polls opened at 7 a.m. He waited in his silver Lexus as Stone and another person started the line. Cousins, 61, of Stockbridge, decided to come Monday because he didn't want to wait on Election Day in long lines and "poring down rain."

Cousins dismissed critics' claims about early voting, particularly the "what if" question if something disturbing emerges about a candidate emerges during the final week.

"The only concern I'm worried about is none of these [voting] cards don't get misplaced before Nov. 2," he said.

By 8:30 a.m., there were three dozen people waiting in line. An hour later, the line was down to 15 people. Some people passed the time reading paperback novels and self-help books. Others waved at friends or chatted with the people in front or behind them.

Megan Hannon, 19, arrived shortly before 9 a.m. She learned about the early voting from her mother, who called early Monday. It was Hannon's first time voting. Although she was unfamiliar with some of the candidates on the ballot, it was a pleasurable experience. She expected a two-hour wait. Instead, it was 15 minutes.

"It went pretty well," she said.

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