By CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY and GEOFF MULVIHILL
ATLANTA (AP) — In the first statewide test of new voting restrictions, Georgia’s high-stakes primary election appeared to be running smoothly Tuesday with no reports of major problems in one of the nation’s most important battleground states.
A record number of ballots cast during the early voting period in the three weeks before Election Day helped ease the strain at polling places. There were no reports of long lines or widespread equipment problems by Tuesday afternoon despite hotly contested GOP primary races for governor and U.S. Senate.
“It’s all quiet, and quiet is good,” said Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who also was facing a GOP primary challenger in his re-election bid.
He said overall turnout was on track to set a record for a midterm election in the state.
Tuesday’s primary was the first major election since the GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican governor adopted tighter rules following the 2020 presidential election and amid a concerted effort by former President Donald Trump to cast doubt on his loss with unsubstantiated claims of fraud.
Lawmakers added restrictions to mail voting, limited drop boxes and changed rules that could make it harder for voters who run into problems on Election Day to have their ballots counted. That’s despite no evidence of widespread fraud that would have changed the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, a state that Democrat Joe Biden won by about 11,800 votes.
Election Day capped a record-setting early voting period in Georgia. Nearly 860,000 ballots had been cast through Friday, the majority of which were done in-person as opposed to mail. State election officials said the early turnout marked a 168% increase from the 2018 primary and a 212% increase from 2020.
Republicans have touted the early voting numbers as evidence that the Georgia elections law, known as Senate Bill 202, has not harmed voters.
“Now we are seeing the hard evidence that as we all knew, the hysteria was never based on fact to begin with,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Shame, shame on the Democrats who pushed the big lie that a grand scheme was afoot to prevent millions of Americans from voting. It was never true.”
Since primaries tend to draw more experienced voters, it may be too soon to draw any sweeping conclusions about the effects of the Georgia law. In the fall, more first-time and infrequent voters — those who are more likely to encounter challenges at the polls — will be casting ballots.
Georgia’s primary also was expected to draw far higher turnout among Republicans because of the closely contested GOP races for governor, U.S. Senate and secretary of state. The two leading Democratic candidates for governor and U.S. Senate were facing little to no opposition.
“That voters have been able to overcome these restrictions does not change the fact that SB202 places cumbersome, confusing and — in some cases — inhumane barriers to the ballot box,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “Nothing I have seen so far has changed the fact that Georgia could have celebrated the historic turnout we saw in 2020 and made voting more accessible.”
Georgia was among three states, along with Alabama and Arkansas, holding regular primaries Tuesday. Texas had runoff elections for the GOP primary for attorney general and for a Democratic congressional seat, while Minnesota was holding a special primary for the seat of former Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died in February.
Georgia —- along with other states that have held early primaries — has seen a dramatic decline in the use of mailed ballots since the record numbers reported in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when voters were seeking alternatives to crowded polling places.
Across the state, election officials and voting rights groups reported a few instances of polling locations opening late, minor equipment troubles and some voters finding themselves at the wrong voting location. State election officials said a drawn-out redistricting process gave election offices tight deadlines to ensure that all voters were assigned to their proper precinct.
Voting was being extended at five precincts in Georgia that delayed their morning opening. There were no immediate reports of major voting issues in the other states.
The new Georgia elections law made several changes. It made it harder to request a mail ballot by shortening the period voters can apply for one and added new ID requirements to the applications and the ballot itself. Voters could request a ballot online two years ago, but now they must print or obtain a paper form, sign it in ink and send it in by mail, email or fax. Trump’s unsubstantiated attacks on mailed ballots also have taken a toll on voter confidence.
As of Monday, about 72,000 mail ballots had been returned out of nearly 97,000 requested by Georgia voters. About 1,300 applications were rejected for arriving past the new, earlier deadline, or about 1.4% of all applications submitted. Those voters, if able, can still vote in person on Tuesday.
Texas primary voters in March were tripped up by new identification requirements, resulting in an abnormally high rate of mail ballot rejections. Lawmakers in Alabama and Arkansas also shortened the period for those requesting absentee ballots.
Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.
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