Georgia gets swing state treatment as Election Day nears

Vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris made a last-minute stop in Georgia Sunday ahead of the Tuesday election. Both presidential tickets have been campaigning heavily in the state, which is now considered a toss-up after years of being solidly red. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

With two days to go before Election Day and millions of Georgia ballots already cast, both major presidential candidates had Georgia on their minds Sunday.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris flew into DeKalb County Sunday morning to make a last-minute push for voters to turn out for former Vice President Joe Biden.

“You all are going to decide who is going to be the next president of the United States,” she said. “You are. You’re going to decide who’s going to be the next president of the United States. So I am back in Georgia to thank you for all you’ve been doing, these years and these months, and these weeks and these days, look at the kind of turnout we’ve already seen in terms of early voting. And so this is not the time to let up, this is the time to put our feet on that pedal and go and get this thing done.”

A few hundred supporters gathered in the parking lot of the Infinite Energy Center in Gwinnett County, some in or sitting on top of their cars, others pressed up against barriers near the stage.

In her nearly 30-minute speech, Harris attacked Trump on his coronavirus response and the state of the economy and said Biden has better plans to combat racism and climate change.

She also plugged down-ballot Democratic candidates in Georgia, including Rep. Lucy McBath and U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff, both of whom spoke at the rally.

President Trump flew into Rome for a Sunday evening rally featuring Georgians including Sen. David Perdue and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. During his hour-long remarks, Trump played down expectations that Georgia will be competitive.

“I shouldn’t even be here, they say I have Georgia made, but you know what, I said, I promised, we have to be here. They said, ‘Sir, you don’t have to come to Georgia, we have it made, it’s won’ – by the way, go out and vote, OK? Just go out and vote,” Trump said, sparking shouts of ‘Four more years!’ from the crowd.

“Thank you. No, they said this morning, ‘Sir, honestly, we can skip Georgia.’ You know I’ve done four of these? You know I’m going to Florida for another one, you believe this? Wonderful,” he added.

Trump said he’s the better choice to keep Americans safe from crime and rebuild an economy laid low by COVID-19.

Both men and their surrogates visited Georgia more than a few times in recent months.

Biden campaigned in Georgia Oct. 27. Both Harris and Biden’s wife, Jill Biden stumped in the state last month, and former President Barack Obama is set to campaign in Atlanta on Biden’s behalf Monday.

Trump has already visited Georgia three times since the summer, as have members of his family and Vice President Mike Pence.

The Republicans would likely prefer not to be spending the run-up to Election Day defending a state that has not backed a Democrat in a presidential race since 1992. But Democrats are getting more competitive in Georgia as younger, more diverse voters are registering, especially in the metro Atlanta area where half the state’s population lives.

Tuesday is expected to continue an election season that’s shattered turnout records in Georgia as recent polls say it’s a toss-up whether voters will extend the Republican party’s long-running dominance up and down the ballot. At stake is nothing less than the White House, two U.S. Senate seats and control of the state Legislature.

More than 3.9 million Georgians cast ballots during early voting as of Sunday evening, 63% more than the end of early voting before the last presidential race and close to the 4.1 million votes cast in 2016.

That unprecedented turnout could mean long waits for those who turn up Tuesday, according to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

“We know that we’re expecting a large turnout, and so you potentially will have lines, and so people just need to be patient,” he said at a Friday press conference. “We have to understand that we have new poll workers and this will be their first election also, so we have to say please extend grace to everyone, and just, goodwill to your fellow citizens and everyone work through it. We are expecting upwards of 2 million people. And that’s a good thing. People are really engaged in the process.”

Poll watchers

Georgia’s high turnout and newly minted battleground status means more scrutiny from national media and voting rights groups.

Some worry polling sites could receive added scrutiny that intimidates voters.

“I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” President Trump said at the first presidential debate.

The comment put a spotlight on the role of poll watchers, an important but often misunderstood job.

In Georgia, each political party can appoint two poll watchers to each precinct and tabulating center to watch election officials, make sure things are running like they are supposed to and keep an eye out for voter suppression or other improprieties. According to state code, these watchers must wear buttons identifying themselves and are not allowed to interfere in the election in any way, record the proceedings or even talk to voters.

Tension over Georgia’s sudden move to swing state status could put polling sites at risk for armed militia members gathering to intimidate voters, according to a report from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

“We know that in Georgia, folks will try to intimidate folks to try to run these tactics, but the voice of the people will be heard,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “And obviously, people are still going out to vote, even though these things are happening. But what I can tell you is that when these things are happening, we are coordinating and are in conversation with the state, we are in conversation with local law enforcement and local elections offices to really brief each other around what is happening when these things are arising”

The report lists Georgia as one of the five states in the “highest risk” category, along with Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Oregon.

The Georgia III%ers, also stylized as the Three Percenters, have provided security at campaign stops for Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. House Candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, the report found.

The report also cites a recent increase in officer resignations from the Atlanta Police Department as reason to believe militia members may “step up.”

Federal law prohibits voter intimidation, and Georgia is one of six states to prohibit guns at polling places.

According to the Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, people who witness voter intimidation should call 911 if they fear imminent violence, notify the local election official at their polling place, document what they saw and call the nonpartisan Election Protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE.

A late night

If you’re planning on staying up Tuesday until all the results are in, you might want to make some coffee, and potentially clear your calendar.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll be up late,” said Kennesaw State University’s director of the School of Government and International Affairs, Kerwin Swint. “This is going to be a different election night because of all the mail-in ballots that have to be counted, so we don’t know if it’ll be called the next morning or not, or if it will take a few days or possibly a few weeks if there is litigation over ballots in places like Pennsylvania, for example.”

Unlike in Pennsylvania, Georgia’s county election offices have been able to begin processing — but not counting – absentee ballots since Oct. 19 after the State Election Board changed the rules in August, and nearly all of the state’s counties have been taking advantage of the new rule.

That means it is likely many races with wide margins could have their results known relatively quickly, but closer races could take a while longer, said Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia.

“It really depends on how close it is,” Bullock said. “If contests are razor-thin, then we may not know what the final vote is going to be exactly.”

One possible monkey wrench could be an influx of absentee ballots coming in on Election Day, which would take more time to process and count, Bullock said.

“If on Election Day, a lot of more absentee ballots come in, county election offices are going to be so busy running the polls that day, they probably won’t be able to count those, so those will have to wait several days to get counted, and that might be what would slow down as getting a final count,” he said.

Fulton County, the state’s most populous county, has earned a reputation among Georgia politics watchers for being the last to post election results.

Fulton County Elections plans to have 90% of absentee by mail votes scanned by Monday at 2 p.m., said elections chief Richard Barron, but Georgia politics junkies could still be in for a late night.

“I don’t know what the lines will be like at 7 p.m., what will delay results from the Election Day precincts on election night would be long lines at 7 p.m., that will delay the results coming in somewhat,” he said. 

“My hope is to have 90% of all of the Election Day results in by 11 o’clock, and then we’ll finish hopefully sometime around midnight to (1 a.m.) with the Election Day sites.”

Before you go

If you are planning on voting on Election Day, bring a friend, a fully-charged phone or a good book, and be prepared for a wait.

Also be sure to bring your photo ID – you’ll need one to vote in Georgia – and your absentee ballot if you have requested one but haven’t turned it in yet. Voters with outstanding mail-in ballots can drop them off to their county elections office or a drop box by 7 p.m. They can also vote in-person, but must fill out paperwork voiding their absentee ballots, which they are asked to bring along if possible.

You’ll want to leave your MAGA hat or Biden shirt at home, however. Georgia law prohibits anyone wearing clothes promoting a candidate on the ballot from being within 150 feet of a polling place or 25 feet from a voter waiting in line.

Unlike during early voting, Election Day voters can only cast their ballots at their assigned polling precinct. Raffensperger urged voters to confirm their polling place at before they leave home, as it may have changed.

Photo: Vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris made a last-minute stop in Georgia Sunday ahead of the Tuesday election. Both presidential tickets have been campaigning heavily in the state, which is now considered a toss-up after years of being solidly red. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder