If you’re like us, Georgia has been at the front of your mind for the last few months. After a historic 2020 election in which Democrats flipped the state blue for the first time in decades, it’s tempting to believe the work is over in the Peach State. But despite record-setting turnout in both the general election and the two Senate runoffs, there are big fights ahead to expand and protect access to the ballot box in Georgia.
The Center for New Data, a nonpartisan non-profit, recently released an analysis of Georgia’s early vote wait times and polling place accessibility in the general election using geolocation data from millions of cell phones to assess activity around polling locations. Learn what the Center’s research means for equitable elections in Georgia in 2022 and beyond.
Here are a few of the report’s key findings:
1. Majority-Black counties in Georgia see some of the longest wait times to vote in the state.
The Atlanta area is home to a huge portion of the Democratic votes in Georgia. When including the Atlanta suburbs, over 1.35 million of Joe Biden’s 2.4 million total votes in the state came from the metro region. The city, which is majority Black, was also a focus of Trump and his allies’ unfounded allegations of voter fraud. But despite record turnout, Atlanta’s exorbitant early vote wait times exemplify the persistent problems of unequal voting access across the state.
The Center for New Data analyzed how long Georgia voters waited in line to vote early. The average early vote time in Georgia was 44 minutes — much above the 30 minute standard established by a much-referenced bipartisan election administration committee in 2014 as indicative of easy and fair access to the ballot. (You can read more about the 30 minute rule here.) Most notably, every single county in the Atlanta metro area saw an average wait time of 45 minutes or more, meaning the region as a whole saw some of the longest wait times in the state. The most densely populated and majority Black region of the state was also where it was hardest to vote early in 2020.
Republicans know that early vote wait times can turn voters away from the polls — and that’s why they’ve proposed House Bill 250 in the Georgia General Assembly, which would require localities to set their early vote locations months before the election and deny them the chance to amend or add sites as needed if turnout is high. Such flexibility allowed Cobb County, which swung blue and saw excessively long wait times in the general election early vote period, to add a few more locations for the run-off’s early vote after a slew of polling location closures. These two extra voting sites helped the county achieve consistent wait times between the general and run-off elections — compared to nearby Hall County, where wait times rose by 14 minutes on average after officials did not open more voting locations.
2. A significant percentage of BIPOC votes are cast during weekend voting — but it’s under threat from Republicans.
The study found that one out of every 10 votes in Georgia’s 2020 general election was cast on a weekend, showing significant utilization of a voting method that is under attack from Republicans across the country. Weekend early voting increases access to the ballot box for working people, voters with unpredictable schedules and anyone who might not be able to get time off on a weekday to cast their vote. In over 100 of Georgia’s 159 counties, Black and Hispanic voters utilized weekend voting more than white voters in the same county. Overall, 8.6% of the total white voters in the election cast their vote on weekends; by contrast, 11.8% of African Americans, 11.4% of Hispanics and 13.1% of Asians headed to the polls on the weekend. This is a notable disparity in a state whose presidential election was decided by 0.03% of the vote.
While numerically the number of white votes cast on weekends outnumbers those of any other group, the proportion of white voters able to make it to the polls on weekdays is the highest of any racial group. In a state with razor-thin margins, it’s clear why Republicans would want to limit weekend voting, which the Georgia legislature moved to do this February in a sweeping election bill, House Bill 531. Disenfranchising voters is the heart of the Republican playbook, and targeting weekend voting would be a frighteningly efficient way for the party to ensure victory in Georgia next cycle.
3. Voter suppression compounds in runoff elections.
The final concerning trend the Center uncovered was that early vote locations already overburdened in the general election were highly likely to close completely in the January runoff elections — further reducing polling place accessibility in areas already underwater. At the time of the paper’s publication in December 2020, 42 early vote locations had plans to close for the runoff election in January — locations where almost 9% of the state’s November ballots had been cast. While simply limiting polling locations is itself cause for concern, the study also found that of the 10 locations with the longest average early vote wait time statewide, half of them would be closed for the runoff.
Between the general and runoff elections, 50% of Georgia’s most inaccessible voting locations — that already suffered from the longest early vote wait times in the state — were slated to close entirely in the following election. This further disenfranchises the communities already suffering from wait times that can make voting too difficult for working people, parents and anyone with inflexible schedules. Research done after January’s runoff elections showed depressed turnout in Latino areas of Hall County, where voters were left in the lurch after their general election early vote location closed for the run-off. In Georgia, inequitable access to the ballot box compounded on itself between elections in communities least able to vote efficiently.
So what’s next?
Despite 2020’s election results, there is a long way to go to ensure equitable and accessible elections in Georgia. If you’re on the ground, you can help by joining Fair Fight Action’s volunteer network to get voters to the polls and organize in disenfranchised communities. Sign up here to be ready for next election! Fight to pass voting reforms that focus on minimizing wait times, like a 30 minute wait-time limit.
And if you’re outside of Georgia but want to stay up-to-date, keep an eye on our alerts page for all the latest voting rights legislation moving through state government and litigation to protect and preserve access to the vote.