October 26, 2018 / 9:33 PM / 24 days ago

Early voting surges ahead of U.S. elections, and complaints follow

MARIETTA, Ga. (Reuters) - Hope Norris showed up two weeks early to vote in Marietta, Georgia, and waited 45 minutes to cast a ballot for Democrat Stacey Abrams, who could become the first black woman governor elected in U.S. history.

Democratic candidate Lucy McBath running for U.S. Congress in Georgia's sixth district speaks with supporters in Marietta, Georgia, U.S., October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Liz Hampton

The 55-year-old social service worker was far from alone in voting well ahead of the Nov. 6 elections that will determine control of the U.S. Congress. Four states have already received more early ballots than they did in all of 2014, according to a Florida researcher who tracks the practice.

The rise in early voting has been accompanied by accounts of voters encountering trouble casting ballots or even being harassed in the wake of the heated U.S. political rhetoric fanned by Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponents.

Candidates from both major parties are urging their supporters to vote early, with Democrats placing particular emphasis on it in the face of new laws imposing strict voter ID limits in states including Georgia and North Dakota.

“People are coming to vote early. That’s what we need them to do,” said Democratic House candidate Lucy McBath after casting her own early ballot in Marietta. “If there is a problem with your voter registration and your ability to vote, that still gives you time to rectify the problem and come back.”

Delaware, Indiana, Minnesota and Tennessee have received more early ballots with 12 days to go before the election than they had received in all of 2014 early voting, according to data compiled by Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at University of Florida at Gainesville.

North Carolina, Georgia, Minnesota, Texas, Florida and Nevada have already received at least twice as many ballots as they had at this point in 2014, the last non-presidential federal elections, McDonald said in a phone interview.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” McDonald said. He expects that in the end, turnout for nearly all of the 50 U.S. states will outstrip 2014, possibly nearing the 49 percent turnout in midterm elections in 1966, when Lyndon Johnson was president. If turnout tops 50 percent of eligible voters, it would be the first time since 1914 that such a high percentage of Americans voted in midterm elections.

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‘DISHEARTENING’

Norris’s wait time was well above average compared with recent elections. A 2016 nationwide voter survey by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that 68 percent of people who voted early waited less than 10 minutes to cast their vote.

Norris was glad she had did not wait until Nov. 6 to vote, saying the electronic voting machine she used seemed to have trouble registering her vote for Abrams, initially showing her as choosing Republican candidate Brian Kemp, the state’s top election official.

Similar issues led the NAACP to file a complaint about some voting machines in Georgia. State officials said the problems appeared to be users pressing the wrong part of the touch-screen voting stations.

“It’s disheartening because you have to wonder ... is this election going to be stolen from Abrams?” Norris said. “I don’t even know if it registered as a Democrat.”

Voting rights groups have sued Kemp, who serves as Georgia Secretary of State, saying his office had inappropriately stopped processing more than 50,000 voter registration applications, many from black voters.

Kemp on Thursday appealed a ruling that prevent absentee ballots from being rejected if their signatures do not appear to match what the state has on file without due process.

BIPARTISAN PROBLEMS

Republicans have also reported problems with voting machines. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign on Friday warned supporters that some voters had been unable to cast straight-party ballots, picking all the candidates running as Republicans or Democrats.

Texas officials blamed user errors.

At least one person has been criminally charged with threatening early voters.

In Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, 28-year-old Jason Donald Wayne was arrested on Wednesday for communicating threats, ethnic intimidation and going armed to terrorize people.

His victim was private detective Derek Partee, an African-American volunteer for the campaign of Republican state Senator Jeff Tarte, according to the campaign he worked for and a Facebook post by Partee.

“Down here in Steele Creek working the polls just threatened by two white males,” Partee wrote, adding that the men had used racial slurs.

Larry Shaheen, Tarte’s campaign chief of staff, said he had witnessed voters who identified themselves as Democrats yelling at a Republican volunteer and also knew Democrats who had been insulted by Republicans.

“These are not campaign volunteers who are doing this – these are voters who are very, very angry,” Shaheen said. “It’s happening on both sides and it’s happening everywhere.”

Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; writing by Scott Malone; editing by Clive McKeef

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