ATLANTA — What could be the main event in Georgia’s twin U.S. Senate runoffs — early in-person voting — got underway Monday, with lines tending to be shorter than during the first days of early voting for the general election.
More than half of the record 5 million votes in the Nov. 3 general election were cast during its two-week early voting period. Early in-person voting could be even more important in these Jan. 5 runoffs because of the short time frame for voters to request and send back ballots by mail, as the two races decide which party will control the U.S. Senate.
“It’s very important,” Democrat Raphael Warnock, who is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in one of the races, said Friday after a speech to labor union canvassers. “It’s how we won in the general and it’s how we’re going to win in the runoff.”
No one expects turnout to be as high in the Warnock-Loeffler contest or the race between U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. But Bernard Fraga, an Emory University professor who studies voting, said overall turnout could reach 4 million.
President Donald Trump has relentlessly pushed claims of fraud in the general election. In an overnight tweet just hours before early voting started, he continued his ongoing attack on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, pushing him to take action or risk harming Perdue and Loeffler’s chances.
“What a fool Governor @BrianKempGA of Georgia is,” the president tweeted. “Could have been so easy, but now we have to do it the hard way. Demand this clown call a Special Session and open up signature verification, NOW. Otherwise, could be a bad day for two GREAT Senators on January 5th.”
Gabriel Sterling, election system implementation manager for the Georgia Secretary of State, said he expects a surge of people Monday. More than 125,000 people cast ballots in October on the first day of early in-person voting before the general election. Some Atlanta-area early voting sites in October and November saw people lined up for hours.
Few long lines were reported as the voting began Monday.
One question is how many absentee by-mail ballots will be cast in the election. By Friday, 1.2 million ballots had been requested and 200,000 returned. In the general election, Democrat Joe Biden won 65% of the 1.3 million absentee ballots that were returned in Georgia, a record fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Fraga said it’s possible that mailed ballots, if anything, will be even more favorable for Democrats in the runoff because of attacks on the integrity of mail-in voting by Trump and many Georgia Republicans.
“I don’t think Republicans are going to be voting by mail even at as high of rates as they did in November,” Fraga said.
That means early in-person voting, which Trump narrowly won in November, could be even more important for Republicans. Both parties may also drive voters toward the early polls with Christmas and New Year’s holidays looming before Jan. 5.
Some Democrats also worry about the Republican attacks on mail-in voting. Meghan Shannon, 36, voted in person for Ossoff and Warnock on Monday at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta partly driven by fears that absentee ballots will be overly scrutinized.
“I think the absentee ballots are going to be questioned when they count the votes,” the architect said. “I wanted to be here in person so my vote is counted and its uncontested.”
Deborah Harp Gibbs of Lilburn said she voted for Perdue and Loeffler because “I want to keep America great.”
Gibbs said she feels its important for people to acknowledge the United States as a Christian nation. “I want prayer in school and God Bless America and apple pie,” Gibbs said.
She said she believed the Republicans could keep things on “the right track.”
Tony Christy, 62, said he was concerned about the balance of power in Washington as he voted in Kennesaw, a conservative-leaning city just northwest of Atlanta, casting his for the two Republicans. If the Democrats win, there will be 50 senators from each party and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would vote in the event of a tie.
That would give too much power to the Democrats, he said, because “then not only will they have the presidency, but they’ll have the House and the Senate, which is not a good balance to have.”
For Towanda Jones, a 54-year-old black hairstylist, police reform was her main priority, and she said she voted for Warnock and Ossoff to make it easier for Biden’s agenda to be enacted.
“I have two grown sons,” she said, voting in downtown Atlanta. “The amount of black lives that have been lost due to police brutality upset me.”
Each of Georgia’s 159 counties must offer at least one location for early voting during business hours, with many in metro Atlanta offering multiple locations, extended hours and weekend voting. Early voting will continue through Dec. 31 in some places.
Preparation for early voting has been marred by squabbles over cuts to the number of early polling places.
In Cobb County, once a Republican stronghold that now trends Democratic, the elections director said cuts were necessary because employees are exhausted and she didn’t have enough staff. In heavily Republican Forsyth County, early voting sites were cut and hours were shortened, with the elections director citing a shorter ballot and fewer voters expected.
The Center for New Data, a nonprofit group, counted 42 early polling sites statewide scheduled to close for the runoff. In some cases, polling places are being relocated nearby.