ATLANTA: Neighbors and volunteers are handing out water and snacks to the masked voters waiting patiently in line to cast their ballots on a hot October day in the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna.
Americans go to the polls on November 3 but the enthusiastic early voting here has already given the morning an air of Election Day.
Georgia has been a reliably Republican, conservative bastion and a Democrat has not won in the Peach State since Bill Clinton, a fellow Southerner, in 1992.
But Democratic candidate Joe Biden, 77, and Republican incumbent Donald Trump, 74, are running neck-and-neck in the polls in Georgia.
And Democrats believe they may have a shot this time at winning not only the state’s 16 Electoral College votes for president but also its two seats in the US Senate.
Democratic wins in the two Senate races in Georgia could help give the party a majority in the chamber.
Nearly 40 percent of Georgia’s eligible voters have cast their ballots early.
Jamal and Michelle Jenkins, an African-American couple, have been waiting in line for about 40 minutes outside the Smyrna Community Center.
“Oh I’m decided,” said 33-year-old Michelle Jenkins, smiling beneath a black hat with little cat’s ears.
She and her 31-year-old husband, who was carrying their baby daughter, Asia, in a kangaroo pouch, are both voting for Biden.
Cobb County, where Smyrna is located, voted Republican for the past 40 years until the 2016 election when it went for Hillary Clinton.
“I feel like it’s very important,” Jamal Jenkins said of the shifting politics in the state.
“This is pretty much, like our mayor said, the Black capital,” Jamal Jenkins said of Atlanta, the city where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr got his start.
With a population of 10.6 million that is one-third Black, trending younger and better educated, there are very few undecided voters in Georgia, just four percent, said Trey Hood, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
“For the parties, it’s about getting their supporters turned out,” Hood said. “A mobilization or a turnout game as opposed to your persuasion game.”
Trump held a campaign rally in Macon, Georgia, earlier this month, a sign he may be playing defense in a state he won by five points last time.
Biden is to visit Georgia on Tuesday and his running mate Senator Kamala Harris was here on Friday.
Hood said various factors were making it a close race.
“Part of it is sort of a long march of demographic change that has been going on for decades,” he said. “And part of it is real enthusiasm I think among Democrats to vote against Trump.”
Ashley Dawson, a 26-year-old white woman, comes from a conservative family and did not vote in 2016.
“Joe Biden, 100 percent,” Dawson said. “Really I’m voting for Harris. Joe Biden’s okay but Harris is who I really want in there so…”
“I don’t think that Trump has our best interests at heart as far as females in this country and our rights and our reproductive rights,” she said.
In a park in northeast Atlanta, the two Democratic candidates for Senate — Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — are drumming up votes.
“This is an amazing moment in Georgia history,” said Warnock, who preaches at King’s former Atlanta church.
“You have the pastor of Dr King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and a young Jewish brother both running for the US Senate,” Warnock said.
“I think what’s happening in Georgia represents this new emerging multi-racial, multi-generational coalition of conscience necessary to bring real change,” he said.
Polls show Trump drawing little support among African Americans but he does have some backers.
“First of all, I do not believe that Donald Trump is a racist,” said Vernon Jones, a Democratic Georgia state representative.
“We’ve been voting for Democrats for 60 years,” Jones told AFP. “What do we have to show for it?”
Trump has “given Black men jobs, he’s allowed them to start their own businesses, and he released many of them out of prison,” he said.
Trump cannot count on getting many Black votes, however, and he will need to mobilize his base to win here again or attract more first-time voters like Ken Miller.
Miller, a 47-year-old white man who works in health insurance, voted early in Gwinnett County, which, like Cobb County, also swung Democratic four years ago.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever voted in my life,” said Miller. “I saw the way the country was heading.
“I voted for Trump, just because I hate politicians, period,” he said. “He’s the first person I’ve ever seen that made promises and then went down a checklist and actually did it.”