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UPDATE 2-Record early U.S. turnout with 3 weeks to go: Georgians, Texans line up to vote

(New throughout, adds early voting lines)

Oct 13 (Reuters) - Texans on Tuesday joined a wave of Americans casting ballots at a record-setting pace, jamming early-voting polling places ahead of a Nov. 3 election showdown between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Long lines of voters snaked out the doors and down the sidewalks at polling places around big cities such as Houston and Dallas, social media videos showed.

“I’ve lived here 13 years and NEVER had a line to vote,” one voter wrote on Twitter, posting a video showing a line of people curling down a walkway 90 minutes before polls opened in Pearland, Texas, near Houston.

In Georgia, where early voting began on Monday, some people waited five hours or more to cast ballots in a record-breaking early turnout for a state that also features two competitive U.S. Senate races.

Glitches with Georgia’s new voting machines prolonged the delays in some locations, voting rights groups said, mirroring issues that led to long delays in the state’s June primary.

With three weeks left until the election, Americans have cast more than 10 million early votes in person and by mail across the country, according to data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project.

A bitter fight for the White House and control of Congress has many Americans seeking to avoid Election Day crowds amid coronavirus safety concerns. By way of comparison, as of Oct. 16, 2016, some 1.4 million Americans had cast early votes.

Both Texas and Georgia are normally Republican-leaning but have emerged as competitive states in the presidential race this year as Biden holds a steady lead in national opinion polls over Trump and expands his campaign into new territory.

Trump won Georgia by 5 percentage points in 2016 and Texas by 9 points, but opinion polls show Biden running close in Georgia and slightly trailing Trump in Texas.

RECORD EARLY TURNOUT

In Georgia, more than 128,000 people cast ballots during the first day of in-person early voting, breaking the previous record just shy of 91,000 votes in 2016, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Nearly 1.6 million absentee ballots have been requested in the state, with more than 473,000 returned and accepted. In 2016, the total number of absentee votes was fewer than 208,000.

“Georgia is seeing record turnout for early voting because of excitement and enthusiasm of the upcoming election,” said Walter Jones, a spokesman for the Georgia Secretary of State, adding that “long lines are to be expected.”

The surge in early voting has sparked legal battles in many states as Trump has claimed without evidence that mail ballots lead to fraud, an assertion dismissed by election experts. Democrats lost challenges to voting rules in Georgia and Texas as the early voting began in both states.

In Georgia, a U.S. district judge ruled against Democrats who proposed easing long voting lines by requiring changes including reallocating voting machines and providing backup paper ballots. The decision came after the hours-long lines on Monday.

In Texas, a federal appeals court late on Monday reinstated an order from Republican Governor Greg Abbott that limits absentee ballot drop-off sites to only one per county, regardless of population or size.

Democrats and voting rights advocates argued the order would make it harder for some Texans to vote. The decision means more than a dozen satellite locations in at least two populous counties will remain shut down: Harris, which includes Houston, and Travis, which includes Austin.

Early voting in both states progressed more slowly than in previous elections partly because of social distancing measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.

In Georgia, the delays were exacerbated by breakdowns including a software problem in voting machines and glitches with the computers used to check in voters.

At State Farm Arena, a downtown Atlanta basketball arena used for early voting for the first time, there was a software problem in 300 voting machines that delayed voting for almost an hour.

Rick Carter, 63, a computer contractor in Atlanta, brought a folding chair for his wife Vera Carter while the couple waited. He said they considered voting by absentee ballot but were spooked by a concern the postmaster general, a Trump ally, was trying to sabotage mail-in voting to help the president.

“With everything going on with the Post Office, we weren’t sure our ballots could get there on time,” he said. “This feels like the safest bet.”

In Virginia, where early voting has been underway for three weeks, a fiber cut caused the state’s voter registration system to crash on Tuesday, the last day to register to vote before Election Day. The Virginia Department of Elections said technicians were working to restore the service as quickly as possible.

Reporting by Joseph Ax in Wilmington, Delaware, Trevor Hunnicutt in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Julia Harte and John Whitesides in Washington; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Howard Goller

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