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Athens voters cast their ballots for Georgia's U.S. Senate runoff election in Athens, Georgia at the ACC Multi-Modal Center on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; taylormckenziephotography.com)

Athens residents lined up to cast their votes for two U.S. Senate seats at polling places across Athens-Clarke County on Tuesday. The outcome of these runoff elections will determine whether Republicans continue to hold the Senate majority or Democrats gain control of both houses of Congress. 

One of the two contested Senate seats is between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. The other is between Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock. After no candidate won a majority in the November general election, the fate of the Senate control lies in the votes of Georgians.

A small but eager crowd

A short line of voters stood outside Clarke Central High School eagerly awaiting the 7 a.m. opening of the polls. The first in line had arrived 33 minutes prior. The second, junior communications studies major at the University of Georgia Turner Rowe, had shown up just after. Rowe had been home for the holidays and missed his chance to vote early, but he wasn’t going to let Election Day pass without making his voice heard. 

“I just wanted to make sure I got here early,” Rowe said. 

Although there was a line when the polling place opened, the crowd quickly thinned and waiting times disappeared. Self-proclaimed procrastinator Marvin Martin said it was the easiest voting experience of his life. For voter Ryan Mcglone, the process was only slightly more complicated. 

“I screwed up my absentee ballot… I got the envelopes mixed up and just wasn’t paying attention,” Mcglone said.

However, he quickly rectified his mistake by signing an affidavit and surrendering the mistaken ballot. A poll worker then called the Elections Office and confirmed the mistaken ballot was now void. Mcglone then proceeded to vote like normal, saying it took less than two minutes.

Clarke Central received 360 votes by the end of the day, more than what was cast in November, according to poll manager Mary Songster.

Five Points Fire Station 3 only housed three polling booths, fewer than most other Athens polling locations. However, poll worker Amber Fetner said she did not foresee the limited number of booths becoming a problem at the precinct. 

Following the initial rush of roughly 15 early-morning voters at 7 a.m., turnout slowed considerably, just as it had on Nov. 3, Fetner said. Despite this being her first election season as a poll worker, Fetner had fully embraced her duty to ensure safe and efficient voting for her Athens neighbors — she even offered to hold the dog of passerby who spontaneously decided to vote. 

While many Athens precincts maintained steady turnout from the general and district attorney runoff elections, Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School was ready to break both previous elections’ turnout records, according to poll manager Tommy Glenn. 

“We’ll probably surpass the number we had in the first runoff in December. We had almost double in the runoff that we had in the general, and we think we’re going to have more than that,” Glenn said. 

The Athens-born poll manager was not the only one keeping track of the precinct’s turnout, though. Tom Van Dean, a volunteer for the Republican Party from Washington D.C,. was at the elementary school as a poll watcher. The job was named well — Van Dean’s primary purpose was to observe the polling process and the casting of ballots. 

“We want to make sure that the machines are operating normally, that the count on both the ballot tabulator and the ballot pad themselves are both correct and the same as well as having an eye count that is also the same as the ballot counts and you just want to make sure that everyone that is able to vote is able to vote and that everyone who isn’t able to isn’t able to,” Van Dean said. 

Even under added scrutiny, the poll workers, the voting machines and the voters all performed well in Van Dean’s eyes. 

Even with limited parking at the Chase Street Elementary polling place, there was no line during the lunch rush nor during the after work rush as voters strolled inside. Chase Street Elementary was expected to receive approximately 300 votes on Tuesday, said polling manager Monika Kapousouz.

“It’s been a little slower than I would have expected, but it’s been more than we had in November,” Kapousouz said. 

Voters going in quickly went in and came back out after voting, and reported no issues with the process. Many voters said that they voted in person on Jan. 5 because it was convenient and easier. 

Keeping the polls clean 

Though the voting area was small, poll workers at CCHS did their due diligence to ensure voter safety amid the pandemic. They encouraged masks, distanced voting booths and wiped down all high-touch surfaces from the machines to the styluses. 

Poll worker Ian Levitt was pleasantly surprised by the absence of mask-related conflict. 

“There’s been a few people who’ve come up and they’re not wearing a mask and they’ll just see me wearing one and go ‘Oh I gotta go to my car real quick.’ I don’t even need to say anything, so that makes it a lot easier,” Levitt said. 

In keeping with their efforts to maintain voter and volunteer safety, COVID-19 precautions were put in place months prior to Tuesday’s election at Fire Station 3. Poll manager Ryan Fairman was confident in the safety measures, including extra personal protective equipment for anyone in need. 

East side Republicans turn out 

Despite concerns about alleged voter fraud in Georgia’s general election, Republicans on Athens’ East side showed up to the polls and cast their votes.

Members of Athens GOP were initially unsure if President Trump’s criticism of Sec. Raffensberger would deter Republicans from participating in the runoff election. On Monday night, Trump held an eleventh-hour rally to encourage GOP turnout. During the rally, he continued to claim he should have won the state of Georgia and cast doubt on the results of the general election.

Republicans Sheri Howard and her husband Danny Howard were not dissuaded by the allegations of voter fraud.

Sheri Howard, a voter at the Whit Davis Elementary School polling place, said the allegations motivated her to cast her ballot in-person to make sure her vote was counted.

“I just like to do it [vote] in person. I vote, I know it’s correct and it didn’t take long,” Sheri Howard said.

Her husband expressed a similar sentiment and noted that while he did have concerns about voter fraud, he did not have any concerns about it happening at his local precinct.

The Georgia GOP’s focus on election day was somewhat unshaken by intra-party conflict

Republicans across Athens’ East side proved they recognized the importance of garnering a win for their party and, despite the president's persistent allegations of fraud, maintained a steadfast ambition to help Republicans keep their Senate seats.

“I just hope the Republicans win, I do... I’m a Republican and I want a Republican in the Senate,” Sheri Howard said.

Voters divided

Some voters were especially excited about the candidates they were voting for, such as Carey Stephens at Fire Station 3. 

“Everything [Perdue and Loeffler] stand for, I back them and believe them,” Stephens said.

Others, like Breckyn Jackson, were more eager to simply see an end to the election season. 

“Whatever the outcome is on either side, needs to be respected because that is the larger voice. That doesn’t mean it’s always your voice, but I’m really sick and tired of people not just showing a level of respect that is due to whoever represents our state,” Jackson said. 

When Thomas Marshall walked into the polling place at Memorial Park, he voted for the Republican candidates to preserve checks and balances in the government, he said.

“This time I voted Republican and the reason for that was I would prefer the Senate be split just so that there’s kind of a check and balance against one party being able to run any sort of legislation through,” Marshall said. 

While Marshall hopes for a split Congress, UGA junior management information systems major Clarence Ogbuefi is hopeful that his vote will bring party continuity to the executive and legislative branches. 

“I voted for Warnock and Ossoff. One because I guess I’m a Democrat, but also just kind of what I’ve seen ... definitely would say I align with their views,” Ogbuefi said. 

Despite being an Independent, voter Erika Heinzle also voted for the Democratic candidates. 

“The reason why is because I feel like there needs to be a change in thinking. There have been the same people in charge for a very long time and I feel like they are out of touch, and I think the people on the ballot are more in tune with what the real masses struggle with,” Heinzle said.