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Early-bird voters get the long lines
But many say it's worth it as presidential race nears finale

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

Advance voting has been touted as a way to avoid long lines at the polls on Election Day. But it was far from convenient for thousands of Georgians who waited up to four hours on Monday to cast a ballot in the general election.

A presidential race in a near-dead heat, inflamed passions over Iraq and the economy, and seething resentment over the 2000 election led many people to vote at the first opportunity.
"I think this is the most important election of my lifetime," said Herb Shellhouse, a lawyer from Buckhead who voted for President Bush in downtown Atlanta. "I think it's all about the war against terror."

Others simply hoped to avoid the long waits they had experienced during the 2000 election. Many of them were disappointed.

More than 100 voters were lined up at several polling places even before the doors opened. Voting in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties was particularly heavy, with lines snaking out doors.

"This process is an inconvenience," said Gilda Valentine of Riverdale, who waited 3 1/2 hours to cast a ballot at the Clayton County courthouse in Jonesboro.

There was no official estimate of the number of advance voters statewide on Monday. DeKalb County, which led the state in early voters during the July primary, logged more than 4,300 before the polls closed. Gwinnett officials said about 2,600 people voted on Monday — nearly half of the 6,000 elections supervisor Lynn Ledford had estimated would vote all week. Fulton reported about 2,500 early votes. An informal survey by the secretary of state's office found more than 1,000 people cast ballots in Fayette, Forsyth, Athens-Clarke and Richmond (Augusta) counties each.

Sharon Wingfield, elections supervisor for Cobb County, said her office was overwhelmed.

"I don't think we expected it on the first day," Wingfield said. "We felt we were doing a good job because we're offering five [early voting] locations, the most of any county in the state."

Eager to participate

Georgia on Monday joined several other states, including Florida, in allowing voters to cast ballots before the Nov. 2 presidential election. Georgia has allowed advance voting since fall 2003, but this is its first trial in a major statewide election. Nationwide, more than 1 million votes had been cast around the nation as both the Bush and Kerry campaigns urged supporters to vote early and bring friends to the polls — especially in states where the race is tight.

While polls show Georgia solidly supporting Bush, that didn't dampen many voters' desire to vote as soon as they could.

Marj Conner of Smyrna said she "can't stand George Bush" and is "very passionate" about this election. "I don't like the fact that he went to war," Conner said. "I just think he jumped the gun. And now we're in a mess."

Stuart Gross of Sandy Springs said he was voting for Bush to cancel out the vote of his wife, who is voting for Sen. John Kerry.

Alia de Gourville, 25, a business analyst from East Point, said she didn't mind waiting to vote against Bush. She voted for Al Gore in 2000, then was laid off and took a lower paying job.

"I'm really glad to see the line is so long. I was disappointed last time when Bush won," she said. "I think if more people came out to the polls, it would have come out differently. I hate to stand in this line, but I'm glad it's long."

Jane Schweers waited three hours at a Fulton County government building in Sandy Springs before she could vote. Schweers, of Atlanta, said she planned to complain to the secretary of state's office.

High voter interest and the novelty of early voting combined with other factors to create long lines. Most counties offered advance voting at only one location; others had as few as four poll workers processing thousands of voters.

A computer glitch Monday morning may have lengthened the wait in some counties. While fixing a problem for Cobb County over the weekend with the state's voter registration database, state technicians inadvertently made it impossible for many counties to log in to the database using high-speed Internet lines. As a result, some counties were having trouble until after 10:30 a.m. Elections officials were forced to use slower backup computer lines or to manually search records.

Some voters decided the lines were simply too long.

"I guess everybody wants to get in on the first day," said Loretta Bradley of College Park, who decided against voting after seeing the lines at a south Fulton government building. "I'll come back tomorrow."

Smaller counties reported far shorter waits. Lines in Cherokee, Fayette, Forsyth and Henry ranged from 10 minutes to one hour.

Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who pushed legislation allowing Georgians to cast a ballot in the workweek before an election, said two- and three-hour waits are "not the ideal." But she noted that this is the first major statewide election to employ early voting and predicted local elections officials will make necessary adjustments.

"Overall, I'm delighted people are taking advantage of this opportunity," Cox said Monday afternoon. "If you were standing in line two hours today, how long do you think you'd be standing in line on Nov. 2 with no early voting options?"

It's unlikely that any counties can add more polling places this week, Cox said, since changes to election procedures in Georgia require federal approval.

Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Cox, said it's difficult to say whether lines will taper off. Early voting trends indicate that Monday and Friday are the busiest days.

Fayette County elections supervisor Carolyn Combs expects the demand will continue: "It's going to be like this the rest of the week."

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