ATLANTA—When Atondra Bush sped into the Rainbow Elementary School parking lot on Election Day, you could hear the exasperation in her voice as she called out to voters on the sidewalk.
“Am I too late?” she asked. It was 7:08 p.m. on Tuesday’s primary election day. The polls had just closed.
The car mechanic had warned her not to overdo it that day. Bush’s 12-year-old black Dodge Charger was severely overheating from a shot air compressor. But she gunned it anyway. Weighing in on the 2022 Georgia primaries was important for her, she told The Daily Beast, and now she failed to take part in “my responsibility for future children.”
Her all-day job as a waitress at the West Egg Cafe in midtown Atlanta—and that city’s infamously bad afternoon traffic—didn’t let her vote early back home in suburban Decatur during the previous two weeks. Had the state kept the large and unmovable ballot boxes secured outside under video surveillance, like it did in 2020, she could have just dropped off her marked paper ballot. But ever since Georgia passed S.B. 202 and its voter restrictions last year, those boxes were moved indoors and only available during daytime working hours.
“I’m so upset by that… it’s ‘early voting,’ but not for someone like me. That made it harder. It put me in a worse bind, because that option was taken from me,” she said, noting that the previous system “would have given me the option to get in my vote and done my part as a citizen and a taxpayer in DeKalb County.”
The Daily Beast spent Tuesday afternoon speaking to dozens of voters at polling stations in mostly Black neighborhoods across the Atlanta metro area. All of them—without a single exception—railed against the increased restrictions in Georgia’s latest voting law, which has been criticized as a thinly veiled attempt to suppress the more progressive-leaning vote of minorities and the poor. At first glance, their complaints seem at odds with the announcement from an architect of this law, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who touted a record early voting turnout this month.
Yet interviews with aggrieved voters this week revealed something of a boomerang effect, as the law actually hardened their resolve, drawing them to the polls with renewed rage to boot out the very Republican politicians who set up these restrictions.
“I’m annoyed and frustrated,” said Cheryl Hines-Bryant, who noted what she called the utter stupidity of reducing access to polls to working-hours only just as employers dial back COVID-19 public health protections and start demanding workers return to full-time, in-person work.
“The only reason I was able to vote today is because I got laid off from my job,” Hines-Bryant told The Daily Beast.
Georgia also now outlaws anyone from handing out food and water within 150 feet of a voting location. Republican lawmakers who supported it pointed to other states that already limit what people can give voters waiting in line—including the ostensibly progressive New York, where it’s a misdemeanor to provide “any meat, drink, tobacco, refreshment, or provision” worth more than a dollar. The stated reason is to prevent activists from buying someone’s vote with favors. And if it’s hot, voters can bring their own food anyway.
“That's ridiculous. Get your own bottle of water. The narrative from our side is that they're handing out bottles of water to vote Democrat. We're in America man, it's not like we're in the Sahara and Eritrea where the floor is dry and cracked and nothing grows,” said Riquet Caballero, who does minority outreach for Atlanta Young Republicans.
Lack of water wasn’t a problem this past Tuesday. The lines were short, if there were lines at all. This was a primary after all, which historically draws a fraction of the people who turn out for the general election. And while the humidity of the Deep South made your clothes stick, it wasn’t an oppressively hot and sunny day like the ones Georgians could face during a summer run-off or a snap local election.
Voncellina Stanley, an accountant, said long lines during an election could be dangerous for people with health problems who might forget to bring food or water when they race out of work to vote—only to encounter lines that last for hours.
“I’m a diabetic. I’m thirsty now!” she said, making her way to her car.
“What about the elderly?” asked Cynthia Brown, a loan manager at a title company. “What if today was not as nice as it is now? It should be available. What’s the harm in water?”
Brown said her motorcycle club, the Atlanta Bike Set, helped distribute water during the massive turnout at the 2020 general election, which resulted in a stunning defeat in typically conservative Georgia for then-President Donald Trump and delivered key electoral college votes that put Joe Biden in the White House. When asked if she felt that water bottles could influence someone to change their vote, Brown gave this reporter a death stare.
“Of course not,” she said.
Some voters said they were already planning to violate the water-distribution law—or come close to it by engaging in civil disobedience to show just how unjust the prohibition is. That includes Byron D. Amos, a member of Atlanta’s city council who represents a section of the city’s downtown that includes its poorest zip code. The Daily Beast interviewed him minutes after he voted at a newly added polling station: the Friendship Baptist Church, the city’s first African American Baptist congregation founded by former slaves just after the Civil War.
Amos said he looks forward to handing out water just beyond the red line in November.
“Maybe at 151 or 152 feet, and get into some ‘good trouble’,” Amos said, echoing the famous words of Georgia’s former Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights activist who shortly before his death spoke of the need for people to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.”
Georgia’s statewide changes also resulted in some districts getting more early voting ballot boxes—but more densely populated ones actually getting mind-boggling reductions. The gargantuan Fulton County, which includes 1 million people in Atlanta and its suburbs, had its 38 absentee ballot drop boxes cut down to eight.
“It would have been easier,” said Brenda Lewis, a 65-year-old certified nursing assistant who works at a senior home and lives at another. “I work, so I thought about doing early voting but… the timing.”
None of the voters who spoke to The Daily Beast were convinced of the need to house those ballot drop-off boxes indoors, given that they were already under video surveillance. Making them harder to reach during evening hours felt like pandering to election fraud conspiracy theorists who’ve been proven wrong by law enforcement, federal judges, and Georgia’s own Raffensperger.
“Moving them removes all doubt people have about voter fraud, but it could be a deterrent to voting. If we put our mail in outside boxes, why not our ballot?” asked P.J. Booker, a structural drafter who draws engineering plans for parking buildings and decks.
Natasha Browner, a scientist who conducts health research, said her travels to South Africa showed her that the United States needs to vastly improve its handling of elections in a way that increases availability but keeps records free from tampering.
“We have enough security measures in place to make outside ballot boxes possible,” she said.
For all the resentment about added difficulties in overall access, voters still maintained that this week’s primary went smoothly. None of the people we interviewed complained about malfunctions on the state’s computer screen ballot marking system that would prevent them from voting. (Although voters across DeKalb County noticed that several buggy machines erroneously offered “English” as both language options instead of including Spanish.) Then again, The Daily Beast only spoke to those who actually made it to the polls on Tuesday.
When The Daily Beast caught up with Raffensperger at his re-election night party on Tuesday and told him about the overwhelmingly positive response to working machines and lack of lines, he said it was proof that S.B. 202 worked out all right. And he said that any worries about ballot box access were easily countered by the state’s decision to expand the early voting period by adding an extra weekend day, a change that mostly impacts rural counties.
But to some, like Christina Archer who works from home as a Verizon customer service representative and cares for her 6-year-old daughter, the issue with Georgia’s new voting law isn’t about whether it makes voting impossible. It’s about rolling back measures that made it so easy to vote during the height of the pandemic—and just a little harder now to engage in your civic duty.
“It would’ve just been easier,” she said.