Jannie Everette was smiling last weekend as she ambled from the historic Camden County courthouse in the cold weather down the sidewalk and back to the car.

“That’s what they get for thinking that Woodbine would not vote,” Everett said to her mother, Lucille Washington, after the two cast their ballots Saturday for the Jan. 5 runoff election that will determine control of the U.S. Senate. “We’re letting our voices be heard this morning.”

Georgians are bucking historic precedent by turning out in robust numbers to choose the state’s two senators and the state public utility commissioner in what both political parties have branded a crucial election for the nation. Despite the onslaught of negative campaign ads and disinformation about Georgia’s electoral process, voters remain committed to the democratic process to ensure that the votes are free and fair.  

So far, at least 2 million Georgians have cast their ballots, either in person or by mail-in voting. That matches the pace of the higher-than-expected turnout on Nov. 3, when the state elected Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the presidential race. Statistics to date show that areas around the state which favored both Democrats and Republicans in the general election are voting early, indicating that the Jan. 5 results will be close.

Fewer places open for early voting

Lucille Washington, left, and Jannie Everette, foreground, arrived early Saturday to get in line during the only early voting day offered in Woodbine, the seat of Camden County. The precinct had more than 68% turnout in the November General Election. Laura Corley/The Current

Unlike Election Day, however, voters are facing fewer opportunities and less access to vote early and in person for the January runoff. State election officials say that’s because of a lack of available polling places for an extraordinary election and a shortage of staff. In Woodbine, for example, the Saturday before Christmas was the only opportunity for residents to vote early in person in north Camden County

The other early voting polls are further south along Interstate 95 in Kingsland, about 12 miles away, and in St. Marys, about 20 miles.

“That means the elderly people like my mom, 80 some years old, she’s got to find a ride to Kingsland,” Everette said.  “During the presidential election, she thought this place was open.”

The limited access to early voting is a problem that voters from Woodbine to Pooler have complained about in Coastal Georgia, as well as around the state. Some Democratic Party leaders and area voters criticize the situation as an attempt to suppress voter turnout, which in the hotly charged campaign would be a situation that would support Republicans.

“They were not going to give us any days” for early voting in Woodbine, Everette said, referring to the Board of Elections. “Then people complained about it and they decided to give it one day. That’s disenfranchisement of the voters.”

Camden County Elections Supervisor Shannon Nettles said “a lot of time and thought” went into deciding which early voting polls would remain open throughout the advance voting period. 

Turnout for Camden County in the general election was 68.05%, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s website. Nettles said that lower voter turnout on the north side of the county and an increased volume of absentee ballot requests were factors for the board as they allotted resources to early voting, as was the fact that St. Mary’s was holding municipal runoffs on the Jan. 5 ballot while Woodbine was not.

“We feel we’ve offered multiple opportunities for all parties to be able to vote,” she said. “We have four different polling locations on the north end of the county on election day. We felt that was ample availability for those voters to either utilize absentee ballots, utilize Election Day voting or use an opportunity, when they’re headed south, to vote in Kingsland.”

Last Saturday, a steady stream of voters arrived at the courthouse in Woodbine took advantage of their one opportunity to vote early and in person.

The marble building next to the sheriff’s office and other county offices, had been a regular early voting site since 2014.  

Inside the courthouse, voters stood nearly shoulder-to-shoulder in a narrow hallway, some waiting up to a half hour to cast their ballot. Most voters in line were women, a mix of black and white. Many of the voters were older. 

Though a little more than half the registered voters in Woodbine precinct are white, it is the most diverse precinct on the northern side of Camden County. Nearby Tarboro and Waverly are both about 70% white.

“It’s very diverse,” Everette said. “It’s a lot of Blacks and whites, but most of the people on this North End are people originally born and raised in Camden County. A lot of them are still living on the same land that their parents were raised on.”

Outside, across a parking lot, Kassie Taylor and a handful of others had set up a sound system to broadcast inspirational speakers and music on the steps of a newer county courthouse.

The 33-year-old moved from Iowa three years ago and joined the Camden County Democrats. She helped organize the event to draw people to vote early. 

Asked about her expectation for turnout for the January election, Taylor said she was concerned about voters in the northern part of Camden who lack reliable transportation. “We’re hoping that this one day of voting will be enough for them,” to access polling places, she said. “We were advocating for more.” 

There are 34,950 registered voters in Camden. About 38% voted as of Wednesday.

High stakes

On the same Saturday, 100 miles further north, a much larger rally took place in Garden City, on the edge of Savannah. 

About 350 cars wheeled in at the city stadium to hear award-winning artist Common perform ahead of speeches by democratic U.S. Senate candidates Rev. Raphael Warnock, who was born in Savannah, and Jon Ossoff. 

The outcome of the Jan. 5 runoff will determine which party has control of the U.S. Senate. The two Democrats are running against incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.

Van Johnson, mayor of Savannah and one of Georgia’s Democratic Party electors, says the momentum across the state is with the Democrats, but the results of Jan. 5 depend on turnout.

Dr. Maulik Patel holds up a sign that says, “desis for Ossoff Warnock” the rally for Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock. Patel, a medical doctor in Savannah, said he is encouraging Southeast Asians from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to come out and vote despite hesitation and fear amid the pandemic.

“It’s a ground game at this point,” he said about the Senate runoff. “We need everyone to go vote, and bring their friends and their family to go vote as well.”

Dr. Maulik Patel was among hundreds of people at the Garden City rally who held up signs. 

Amid a sea of supporters clutching placards for “Suburban Women,” “LGBTQ,” “Healthcare Workers” and “Air Traffic Controllers,” Patel’s blue-and-orange sign read: “desis for Ossoff Warnock.” Desi is a word describing the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in America. 

“We know the numbers are down a little bit in terms of voting, especially with the populations that I’m trying to reach, which is the Asian Americans and the Desis, which are the South Asians,” Patel said.

Within his community, he said, there is doubt about whether voting in January will have any effect on their lives. “They definitely are hesitant to come out,” he said. “They don’t know if this can do anything for them, if this will impact them at all, whether it’s one senator or another, but that’s part of their ignorance because these folks have the power to make changes that will have some impact.” 

‘They want their voice heard’

As of Dec. 22, about 36% of registered voters had voted early, according to Chatham County Board of Registrars Director Sabrina German. Chatham, the fifth most populous county in the state, had a 67% turnout for the Nov. 3 election.

Across the county, which stretches some 50 miles from Pooler to Tybee Island, the number of early voting polls was reduced from six to five after Pooler Recreation Park Gym was eliminated as an option due to a scheduling conflict. Pooler is one of the fastest growing municipalities in the state, and home to a significant number of Latino and Black families, demographic groups that tend to support Democrats. 

Still, early voting turnout is in line with the numbers who voted in advance of the general election. “With us not even having a Sunday voting day, we’re still ahead of the game,” German said. The average wait time to vote early has been about 20 minutes, she added.

In Liberty County, four early voting polls were open for the general election and three were planned for the runoff, Interim Elections Supervisor Ronda Walthour said. Ultimately, though, only two opened for the runoff. A third polling place, a church on the county’s west end, had scheduling conflicts, too. The wait time to vote has been about 5 minutes, Walthour said.

Turnout in Liberty for the general election was 60.36%. A little more than 35% have voted in advance of Jan. 5.

McIntosh County has one early voting poll. County Election Supervisor Elenore Gales said 378 people voted early in-person on the first day, which is “good for a runoff, because usually people don’t come out.” 

More than 3,740 voted during the three weeks of early voting in the general election. As of Tuesday, about 1,840 had voted early for the runoff.

“I guess it’s doing better than what I expected,” Gale said. “Because usually in the runoff, people just don’t come out and vote. I think they’re taking it more seriously with the Senate races on the ballot. Yeah, but they want a voice. They want their voice heard.”

Laura Corley is an investigative reporter who has covered public safety and government and education in her home state of Georgia since 2014. At The (Macon) Telegraph, Laura used open records requests...