MARIETTA, Ga. — Wim Laven arrived to his polling location in Atlanta’s northern suburbs this week unsure what to make of recent allegations of voter difficulties at the ballot box. Then he waited two hours in the Georgia sun; saw one person in the line treated for heat exhaustion; and watched a second collapse, receive help from paramedics, yet refuse to be taken to the hospital — so he could remain in line and cast his ballot.
Mr. Laven is now a believer.
“I have a hard time imaging this is anything but an intentional effort,” said Mr. Laven, who teaches political science at Kennesaw State University. “I can’t imagine this is just pure incompetence. Everyone knew how serious people have been around here about getting out the vote.”
As Georgians cast their first in-person ballots on Monday in the state’s fiercely contested gubernatorial election, what were once hypothetical fears about the state’s inability to handle what could be a record turnout for a nonpresidential election may be becoming reality.
Vote totals have increased almost 200 percent at the same point since the last gubernatorial election, according to the independent tracker Georgia Votes, but many worry the state has either failed to adequately prepare for such increased interest or Republican state officials have intentionally mounted barriers to dissuade communities of likely Democratic residents from voting.
Some of the concerns reflect longstanding complaints, such as reduced polling locations, confusion among election workers, and outdated voting machines which may soon be deemed illegal. Since 2012, more than 200 local voting precincts have been closed across the state of Georgia, which amount to about 8 percent of the state’s total polling places.
But there are also allegations of intentional voter suppression, which has become a central issue in the governor’s race. A recent report by The Associated Press detailed how Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also the Republican nominee for governor, had stalled more than 50,000 voter registrations of disproportionately black voters because of alleged problems with their voting registration information.
Mr. Kemp has denied allegations of intentional voter suppression and said that all persons on that list can still vote on Election Day, if they have the proper identification. Still, the back-and-forth has ignited nervousness and confusion among supporters of Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, who is seeking to become the first black female governor.
The Democratic Party of Georgia, through a spokesman, said its voter protection hotline has received about 300 calls a day since early voting began.
“It’s absolutely crazy,” said Kimberly Edwards, 37, who said she recently learned her husband had been purged from voting rolls after skipping the 2016 election. She found out when a canvasser knocked on her door and urged Ms. Edwards to check their registration. “We wouldn’t have known had someone not come over here.”
Lines at one Cobb County polling place Wednesday had ballooned into a three-hour wait for early voting. On a canvassing trip in Lilburn, Ga., targeting unlikely midterm voters, a group of domestic care workers who have been volunteering six days a week talked to multiple residents who worried about their registration status.
And on Monday, news that about 40 black seniors were barred from early voting at the behest of county officials in eastern Georgia’s Jefferson County enraged voting rights advocates, who say such actions could have a chilling effect.
The group of seniors had planned to head to the polls on a decorated bus from the “Black Voters Matter Fund,” a nonpartisan state group that encourages civic engagement among African-Americans. There was singing, joyous chants, and a palpable sense of excitement until one of the directors of the group’s living facility said a county worker had called and said the group could not board the bus and go vote.
The worker cited the appearance of partisanship, but the voting-rights group and its leaders were furious, saying the incident was a clear example of voter suppression.
“No racially discriminatory suppression of that right can be tolerated in Georgia or elsewhere,” read a letter sent Wednesday by the NAACP Legal Defense Council. “In this contested election season, we urge you all to protect against voter intimidation and other conduct designed to suppress voting rights in your County.”
Cliff Albright, the co-founder of “Black Voters Matter,” said the incident sparked memories of the Jim Crow South for some of the elderly voters they were attempting to bring to the polls.
“It seems incredible, but this is the daily realities in these counties,” Mr. Albright said. “These are the connections and the circles of influence that a lot of people who don’t live in these counties understand. They don’t understand the levels of intimidation.”
This fear — that state officials are intentionally attempting to undermine voting rights of minorities — echoes a darker period in America’s past when states codified voter disenfranchisement along racial lines. The Georgia scenes have also reignited debate about the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which eliminated the need for states with a history of voter disenfranchisement to obtain federal pre-clearance before changing its voting laws, as was previously required under a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“We’ve lost that pre-emptive mechanism, so now we’re left with case-by-case litigation to fight, and that can be slow,” said Kristen Clarke, the president of national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We’re in a moment that requires a tremendous amount of vigilance to be on top of the potential voter suppression efforts that are emanating around the country.”
This is especially true in Georgia, which has long been watched by voting rights advocates. One prominent group, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, reported recently that the state had removed 1.5 million voters from its rolls between 2012 and 2016, twice the number of the preceding four years, and that elections also had seen a rise in provisional ballots that are submitted by voters whose registrations are somehow missing or defective. The group said that data suggests, but does not prove, that the customary process of purging voters who have moved or died from the rolls is also removing legitimate voters.
Mr. Kemp was a key proponent of the 2017 state law that requires an “exact match” between a voter’s registration form and his or her government documents, meaning a missing hyphen, or a difference between a married and a maiden name, can cause a registration to be suspended.
Mr. Kemp resisted calls to resign from his post as secretary of state during his gubernatorial run. He has also repeatedly leveled the charge that Ms. Abrams wants noncitizens’ votes to count, based on a recent campaign speech where Ms. Abrams said “the blue wave” should be “comprised of those who are documented and undocumented.” Ms. Abrams has denied she meant that noncitizens should have their votes counted; she said she was referring to who Democrats are pledging to protect, if elected.
“I don’t know what’s worse: Actively working to undermine the rule of law by letting illegal immigrants vote or lying to hardworking Georgians about it,” Mr. Kemp tweeted Wednesday. “Either way, Stacey Abrams is too extreme for Georgia.”
Ms. Abrams’ campaign has tried to use the debate to mobilize voters, but Greg Shufeldt, a professor at Butler University who studies elections, says the state has a serious and lasting problem surrounding confidence in the election system.
Georgia ranks 43rd out of 50 in election integrity, according to one of Mr. Shufeldt’s measures, which grades things like state election administration and expert opinion surveys.
That ranking is emblematic of almost a decade of fights between election rights groups and Mr. Kemp. Questions have long swirled around Mr. Kemp’s office about issues including voter data security and whether Georgia’s voting machines were fit for modern elections.
A judge in September rejected one group’s request to force Georgia to use paper ballots in the 2018 election. Still, in doing so, the judge wrote that “state election officials had buried their heads in the sand,” about questions surrounding the state’s election machinery.
A different lawsuit filed this week from election rights groups accused Mr. Kemp’s office of “excessive rejection” of absentee ballots in Gwinnett County, which is electorally important, increasingly diverse, and beginning to lean liberal as the state’s demographics change.
An analysis by the Atlanta Journal Constitution found that Gwinnett County had rejected about 8.5 percent of absentee ballots, while less than 2 percent had been rejected statewide.
“This is 2018 and I’m just not sure why this has to be this complicated,” said Robert Thompson, who works in information technology and lives in Cobb County outside Atlanta. Mr. Thompson had to contact a voter hotline from the American Civil Liberties Union because his absentee ballot application kept being rejected. It ended up that his election office was using a spam blocker that prohibited his emails from being seen.
“People just give up because they don’t have time for this,” Mr. Thompson said.
Georgia is one of a few states that uses electronic-only voting machines without a paper trail to back up results. Election experts have frequently warned that such systems leave the state without recourse in the event of a severe election hacking or tampering.
Mr. Kemp nonetheless remains steadfast that Georgia has no voting rights issues. In 2016, he refused an offer by the Department of Homeland Security to help with election security, and called it an attempt to “subvert the Constitution to achieve the goal of federalizing elections under the guise of security.”
He was one of few state election officials in America to reject federal assistance.