Early voters in U.S. facing long lines, COVID-19 concerns | CBC News

Early voting in the U.S. election began Tuesday with long lines in Texas, one of the few places in the country not allowing widespread mail balloting during the pandemic, and Jill Biden rallied supporters across the red state that Democrats are no longer writing off.

Texas is one of just five states that did not dramatically expand mail-in voting this year because of COVID-19. And hours before polls opened, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting counties to one mail ballot drop-off box was upheld by a federal appeals court, stopping dozens of shuttered sites around Texas from reopening.

Both the virus and Texas’ high stakes in November were front-of-mind in Jill Biden’s first stop, the border city of El Paso, where Abbott has deployed more nurses and medical equipment as cases and hospitalizations climb. Campaigning for her husband, former vice-president Joe Biden, she was due to end her 1,300-kilometre swing across Texas in Houston.

Regina Cuchapin, a registered Democrat and Houston resident, said she still didn’t feel safe eating in restaurants because of the coronavirus but that she was willing to be among crowds to exercise her right to vote. “I think that now that people know how serious it is and what precautions to take, I think those who are ready to come out are taking those precautions,” said Cuchapin, a health-care worker.

By midday Tuesday, Houston election officials reported more than 68,000 votes had been cast in Harris County, a record for the first day of early voting. Long lines were common at polling sites across Texas, as were masks, although voters are not required to wear them inside polling places. In suburban Houston’s Fort Bend County, technical problems kept machines offline for more than an hour as hundreds of people waited to vote. The county’s top elected official said he would authorize an investigation.

“Those who are responsible will be held accountable,” said Fort Bend County Judge KP George.

Much is on the line in the country’s largest red state, which has competitive congressional and state legislative races and is a potential presidential battleground. And local election authorities have been pulling out all the stops to ensure the state’s 16 million registered voters can safely cast their ballots in person.

New record in Georgia

More than 128,000 Georgians went to the polls Monday, a record for the first day of early voting in the state, according to the secretary of state’s office. The high turnout surpassed the nearly 91,000 votes cast on the first day of early voting in 2016 and left eager voters waiting in hours-long lines across the state to cast their ballots.

Election officials and advocacy groups have been pushing people to vote early, either in person or by absentee ballot, in anticipation of record turnout and concerns about coronavirus exposure, but some would-be voters turned up Monday only to find their county offices closed for the Columbus Day holiday.

The secretary of state’s office said it received no votes Monday from 49 of the state’s 159 counties, but it wasn’t clear how many of those were closed for the holiday, spokesperson Walter Jones said. People in Georgia can continue to vote early in person through Oct. 30. While voters must vote at their assigned polling place on election day, they can vote at any open polling place in the county where they live during early voting.

Jill Biden speaks during a campaign event to promote early voting in Texas at the University of Texas at El Paso. (Briana Sanchez/The El Paso Times/The Associated Press)

By Tuesday morning, about 1.6 million people had requested absentee ballots, according to the secretary of state’s office. Of those, nearly 474,000 had been returned and accepted. Absentee and early votes are not counted until election day.

Long lines formed again Tuesday in some places. At least two counties, Cobb and Gwinnett in Atlanta’s populous northern suburbs, have online wait time tracking tools. Gwinnett’s tracker showed an eight-hour wait around midday at the main elections office and waits of one to two hours elsewhere. Cobb’s tracker showed a wait of five hours at the county’s main elections office.

Recent elections scrutinized

A bitter fight for the White House and control of Congress has helped inspire the high turnout in states like Texas and Georgia, and many Americans are casting ballots early to avoid election day crowds amid coronavirus safety concerns. By way of comparison, as of Oct. 16, 2016, some 1.4 million Americans had cast early votes.

With photos and videos of long lines Monday posted by news outlets and circulating widely on social media, some election integrity advocates and elected officials said it was evidence of voter suppression and called on election officials to take steps to take immediate action.

Others, however, urged patience. “Election officials have limited resources — especially during the pandemic,” Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California-Irvine, tweeted Monday night. “Great enthusiasm on the first day of voting leading to long lines does not necessarily mean there’s a systemic problem. Let’s give it a few days.”

Georgia’s elections have drawn national scrutiny in recent years. That was renewed in June when the state’s primary election was marred by long lines caused by equipment problems and high turnout, as well as coronavirus-related consolidations of polling places and shortages of poll workers.

Concerns about voter disenfranchisement have resulted in a flood of election-related lawsuits seeking to have judges order changes.

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed in August by Democrats that asked him to order Georgia election officials to take steps to prevent long lines at the polls on Election Day. U.S. District Judge Michael Brown wrote in an order Tuesday that it appears election officials have taken steps to address the issues that previously caused long lines.

Monday was the first day of early voting in Georgia, and the first time Fulton County’s new mobile voting stations were used. (Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/The Associated Press)

“It is possible, of course, these measures will ultimately prove insufficient and long lines will still arise,” he wrote. “But that is not the point; no one, including this Court, can guarantee short lines.”

Separately, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg late Monday declined to order Georgia polling places to increase the number of emergency paper ballots they have on hand to allow voting to continue if there are problems with electronic voting equipment.

Totenberg had previously instructed the secretary of state in an order last month to make sure county election officials and poll workers are trained on using emergency ballots and to “maintain a sufficient stock of emergency paper ballots.” A state election board rule says elections that include a federal race, “a sufficient amount of emergency paper ballots shall be at least 10 per cent of the number of registered voters to a polling place.”

Totenberg’s Monday ruling denies a request to require that each polling place have enough emergency paper ballots for 40 per cent of the registered voters assigned to a polling place. Determining the precise details of election administration is the responsibility of state and local election officials, she wrote.

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