When Elizabeth Brownlie showed up at Chastain Park to cast her ballot at 10:45 a.m. Monday, the 32-year-old Atlanta resident expected to wait up to two hours to vote.
But after an hour and a half of standing in line, Brownlie was still nowhere near the entrance to the polling place inside the park gym. With an appointment to get to, she left.
"For me, it’s very, very, very important and [it was] disheartening ... to have that experience," she said. "Voting should not be this difficult."
As early voting got underway in Georgia on Monday, energized voters turned out in droves across the state, resulting in long lines and wait times of up to eight hours in Gwinnett County. A record number of 128,590 ballots were cast over the course of the day — a more than 40% increase from the 90,688 ballots cast on the first day of early voting in 2016, according to the Georgia Secretary of State's office.
While many expressed frustration over having to stand in line for so long to make their voices heard, experts said the agonizing wait times, while unacceptable, were not necessarily evidence of voter suppression.
"I’d be concerned if I didn't see long lines," said David Becker, executive director and founder for the Center for Election Innovation & Research.
Rather, long lines at the beginning of early voting are a sign that voters are enthusiastic about participating in the election, Becker told BuzzFeed News, adding that every person that votes early is one less person who could be stuck in line on election night.
"We’re 22 days away from the election," he said. "Anyone who sees a long line and does not have the time to wait can come back tomorrow."
Still, in Georgia, which has a long history of voter suppression tactics that have disproportionately targeted Black voters, the long waits were a reminder of previous efforts to limit people's access to the polls.
"Some of this is voter enthusiasm. But this is just not acceptable in a modern day democracy," Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, wrote on Twitter. "We need restoration of the [Voting Rights Act] & officials who’ll provide more voting opportunities during a pandemic."
If past early voting trends hold true, experts and local officials said they expect to see a dip in turnout after Monday's surge before seeing numbers increase again closer to Election Day.
In addition to voter enthusiasm, the huge turnout may have been due in part to the first day of early voting falling on the Columbus Day holiday, experts and officials said, with many people possibly choosing to vote because they were off work.
"Today might be an anomaly because it's the first day of early voting and people are excited and it's a holiday," said Josh Douglas, an election law and voting rights professor at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law.
Douglas warned voters not to "jump to conclusions about whether this is some sort of intentional effort at voter suppression."
"I don't think it is," he said. "I think it’s accurate to say both that no one should have to wait five hours and that ... we can't know for sure that every day of early voting in Georgia is going to have these same kind of waits."
In addition to the large turnout, other technical issues may have added to the wait times.
Gwinnett County spokesperson Joe Sorenson told BuzzFeed News at least one of the county's nine early voting locations weren't able to get all of the voting machines running early in the morning because of a "local network issue." He added that because of the coronavirus pandemic, they also were not able to operate as many voting machines as they had initially planned in order to maintain distance in between voters.
"We have our locations maxed out and if we weren't in COVID-19 times we would have had a lot more machines in those facilities," Sorenson said. "We’re having x divided by 2 in a lot of cases."
Early voting also typically takes a bit longer than voting in-person on Election Day because voting locations are open to all voters across the county, meaning that each site has to provide a larger number of ballot options to account for every voter's local elections. They also don't have the benefit of downloading voter rolls in advance such as is done at precinct polling places because officials need to be able check in real time whether voters have already cast a ballot at another site.
"It's a more complex process from the election officials' perspective but a much more convenient," process for voters, Becker said.
Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler said it was also taking longer for poll workers to verify voters' registration in the state's database due to a higher than normal volume of requests. The state saw about 20 percent more users accessing the voter registration system Monday than it handles on a typical weekday, according to the secretary of state's office.
Eveler said they were also seeing a high number of voters who had originally requested absentee or mail-in ballots but showed up to vote in-person instead.
"That slows things down because they have to cancel that one in order to vote in-person so there's more steps," she said.
Tommy Vickers, who waited five hours to vote at George Pierce Park in Gwinnett County, was one of those voters. Because of pandemic, Vickers and his wife requested absentee ballots but in light of President Donald Trump's attacks on voting by mail and concerns about the US Postal Service's mail delivery delays, he decided to vote early in-person.
"I anticipated that there would probably be some lines," Vickers told BuzzFeed News. "I did not expect it would be a five-hour line."
Vickers, 35, of Sugar Hill, voted early at the same location in 2018 and was in and out within minutes, he said. He expected to return home within an hour so that his wife, who had the day off and was watching their kids, could also go vote.
"She’s going to wait probably until next week," he said.
Vickers said that once he got through the line, it took an extra five minutes or so for him to surrender his absentee ballot because the worker who was checking him in had to get a manager to help her figure out how to cancel the mail ballot and issue him an in-person one.
"I was exceptionally frustrated to have to wait that long, but I was happy to do so," Vickers said, adding that he would have liked more communication from the county about the wait times and the issues contributing to them.
Kathy C. said she and her husband also waited nearly five hours to vote after arriving at the George Pierce Park site at 6:50 a.m. After the doors opened at 7 a.m., she said it took another hour for the line to move again.
"Everyone was just staring at the door waiting for it to move," said Kathy, 51, adding that when they finally got inside, she saw workers having to repeatedly reboot machines. "Why are they having software glitches? It seemed like they weren't ready."
While the county does post wait times online, Vickers didn't think it was worth going to another site that was listed as having no wait time because the website said the same thing for the location that he had already been waiting at for an hour.
Sorenson, the Gwinnett County spokesperson, acknowledged that the listed wait times were not accurate early in the day, saying that they "spent a lot of time working with people to get those right."
"Everything's slower on the first day," he said. "You’ve got a lot of people who doing this for the first time. Everyday they get more experienced, you get a little more efficiencies in the process."