In Georgia, millions of voters have already cast ballots in an election that’s been framed as a bellwether of the direction of American politics.
In 2020, the pivotal swing state helped determine the outcome of the presidential election and control of the Senate. This year, more crucial races are on the line: Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock is neck-in-neck with Republican challenger Herschel Walker, while Republican Governor Brian Kemp once again faces Democrat Stacey Abrams, who lost to Kemp in 2018 by fewer than 60,000 votes. The results in Georgia could not only determine who controls the state, but also who controls Congress. The stakes are high, and voters know it.
So far, turnout for the 2022 election is at least 20% higher than it was at this point in 2018. Over two million people have voted early in-person, while over 200,000 have voted by absentee ballot. The high turnout comes after Georgia enacted the controversial law SB 202 last year that made numerous changes to Georgia’s election law, including limiting the number and accessibility of absentee ballot drop boxes, imposing new ID requirements on requesting those ballots, and imposing an extra weekend day of early voting. Republicans have pointed to record turnout as proof that SB 202 does not engage in voter suppression, while Democrats argue voters are instead motivated by the high stakes to overcome new barriers.
Mike Hassinger, a public information officer for the Georgia secretary of state’s office, tells TIME in a statement that SB 202 was “intended to maximize individual voter convenience while enhancing overall election security and public trust in the election process.”
“Georgians now have more ways and more days to vote than ever before, and a multitude of options to vote in the method that best suits the individual voter,” he said.
While more than 2.5 million Georgians have already voted and more are sure to vote on Nov. 8, it has not been easy for everyone. TIME spoke with seven voters who have found it difficult—if not impossible—to cast a ballot in this election. Some say their difficulties have stemmed from Georgia laws. Others face more personal challenges experienced by people across America, a country where socioeconomic status, location, disability status, and access to transportation can often determine who feels enfranchised. While some on this list have managed to overcome those barriers to cast a ballot this year, others won’t.
Robyn Hasan, 46, Atlanta, Georgia
Barred from voting on probation
Growing up, Robyn Hasan’s parents stressed to her the importance of voting and selecting your representatives, she says. She always made an effort to vote, until she was incarcerated in 2010 for computer theft and wire fraud. She was released on probation in 2020, and has seven years remaining. Until that time is up, Georgia law prevents her from voting.
“When you go to prison, when you come home they tell you your time is over,” says Hasan. “But that’s not necessarily so. Not being able to vote makes you feel like a second-class citizen, like I can’t voice my concerns about how I would like my life to be here in the state of Georgia.”
Hasan is now the executive director of the advocacy group Women on the Rise, a group of formerly incarcerated people who advocate for criminal justice reform. They are urging Georgia lawmakers to join the 23 other states that extend the right to vote to people on parole or probation. “As a homeowner, I pay my taxes,” she says. “I don’t understand how I can be treated as a citizen when it’s beneficial to [the state], but my voice has to be silenced when it comes to something that could benefit me.”
Francesca Ruhe, 18, Atlanta, Georgia
Francesca Ruhe was excited to vote for the first time this year. But as she began planning out her route to early voting, she was surprised about how inaccessible it was. Ruhe, who attends Georgia State University in Atlanta, does not have a car and relies on public transportation to get around the city. She says that when she looked up nearby early voting locations, they each were long walks away from the nearest public transportation stop, meaning her route to go vote might take over 3 hours round trip. Ultimately, she carpooled with someone who could give her a ride to go vote early.
Ruhe works for a state representative and describes herself as someone who finds it “absolutely necessary to go vote.” Yet, “I still found it hard for me to get motivated because of all of these barriers,” she says. “Going to vote, it should be like going to a fast food restaurant. It should be that amount of effort to go into it.”
Derrean Tucker, 23, LaGrange, Georgia
Barred from voting on parole
When he was 18, Derrean Tucker was sentenced to 12 years in prison for criminal attempted armed robbery. Not long after he was incarcerated, Tucker was beaten by other men in prison to the point of permanent blindness. In 2020, he was released on parole, and Tucker now works to advocate for the rights of fellow disabled Georgians.
Tucker was arrested when he was 17. He has never been able to vote, and under Georgia law will not be able to until both his parole and probation are complete—which will be in 2046.
Tucker says he realizes that lack of access to voting is part of his punishment. “I just wish that voting for disabled people would be accessible,” he says. “And I hope that when I come off of parole, I can vote freely and easily without any hindrances.”
Marrow Woods, 19, Atlanta, Georgia
Fears long lines due to disability
Marrow Woods is nervous to vote in person. Woods suffers from hidradenitis suppurativa, a chronic condition that they say makes it difficult to stand for long periods of time or carry things, and makes them become dehydrated easily. They were already apprehensive about the possibility of long voting lines, and were alarmed to hear SB 202 bans volunteers from handing voters food or water as they wait in line.
Supporters of the law’s ban on offering “gifts”—including food or drink—within 150 feet of a polling place say that it’s intended to prevent political organizations or operatives from swaying voters right before they cast a ballot. But Marrow says the law makes them feel unsupported as a disabled person, and will cause them to bring a large bottle of water on Election Day that they will have trouble carrying.
“I’m really excited about being able to vote this year,” Woods says. “And make sure that folks like me, whether that’s someone who is Black, trans, queer, or disabled, are able to have a voice and feel represented.”
Jennifer Jones, 31, Fairburn, Georgia
Challenged voter registration
Since she moved to Georgia in 2017, Jennifer Jones says she’d never had an issue voting. But that changed on Oct. 18, when she walked into her early voting location to learn that her voter registration had been challenged.
SB 202 allows individual Georgians to challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters. According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, at least 65,000 voter registrations have been challenged across the state this year, only 3,200 of which have been upheld. Supporters of the challenges say they’re meant to prevent possible voter fraud, while opponents respond that such challenges are unnecessary and potentially discriminatory.
Jones doesn’t know who challenged her voter eligibility. She was told by election workers she would have to vote a provisional ballot instead—a ballot that is not counted until the voter’s eligibility is verified up to three business days after Election Day. Jones says she refused and contacted a voting rights nonprofit, who then contacted her local department of elections and had her identification confirmed. She went back the next week and successfully voted early. (Fulton County’s elections offices did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.)
Jones says the experience taught her that people shouldn’t give up when they come up against voting barriers. “I’m a part of democracy,” she says. “Black people have fought to be a part of democracy. And I am not able to have somebody tell me I can’t vote.”
Lupita Cadena, 31, Chatsworth, Georgia
Packed work schedule
Lupita Cadena works the night shift at her local Target six days a week. The shift usually runs from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and when she gets off she has to wrangle her three kids ages 9, 7, and 3. Cadena says she’s found it extremely difficult to allocate the minimum 20 minutes each way that it takes to drive to her closest polling place. For this reason, Cadena says, she hasn’t voted in years.
But this election will be different. Cadena began working a second job canvassing for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO), a nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to keep Georgia’s Latinx community civically engaged. Through her work, Cadena says, she’s met people “who go out and vote, even when it’s probably almost impossible for them to do it, but they still do it.” On Election Day, she plans to be one of them.
Keith Bowens, 56, Lithonia, Georgia
Keith Bowens didn’t realize he needed an ID to vote until he got a postcard about it in the mail from the nonprofit VoteRiders. Bowens had an ID last time he voted for former President Barack Obama, but he was then incarcerated for two years for a misdemeanor and on probation for two more, and during that time his ID was misplaced, he says.
He contacted VoteRiders, who stepped in to help. Since Bowens was unemployed at the time, the nonprofit paid the fee for his ID and for his transportation to and from the DMV. After watching the contentious 2020 election, Bowens says he feels motivated to make sure his voice is heard.
“I want to have my chance to vote and have my vote be counted,” he says. “Now I have everything I need to do that.” He plans on voting on Election Day.
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