Georgia’s midterm election cycle continues with the state’s highly anticipated US Senate runoff between the incumbent Democrat senator Raphael Warnock and controversial Republican candidate Herschel Walker. However, unlike years past, under the state’s new election integrity law, early voting for the runoff begins just as the general election comes to a close, giving voters a historically small window of time to cast their ballot.
In previous elections, runoffs lasted nine weeks. Under the new law, SB202, which includes a spate of new voting restrictions, the timeline has been shortened substantially and must occur 28 days after the general election. This timeframe is especially important because voters must now register 30 days before an election, making it impossible for new voters to register between the general election, which took place on 8 November, and the runoff.
SB202 is causing confusion among voters and election officials alike – especially as it pertains to Saturday voting. Saturday voting has been made available during early voting in past elections, prompting officials and voters to believe Saturday 26 November would be a day for early voting in the runoffs this year. Yet, under the new law, voting cannot occur close to a holiday, which – because of both Thanksgiving and a state holiday formerly known as Robert E Lee Day – would have pushed the official start of early voting to Monday 28 November instead.
Following a lawsuit brought forth by the Democratic party of Georgia, Warnock for Georgia and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Saturday voting is now permitted on 26 November. It was argued that this specific day of voting was critical for many voters as it would present the only possible Saturday voting under the state’s stricter timeline. (The state unsuccessfully attempted to block the ruling but so far it has been upheld.)
Vasu Abhiraman, deputy policy and advocacy director at ACLU of Georgia, also notes the importance of this voting day for college students. “We’ve talked to so many students, who were not able to vote in the [general] election because they either didn’t get their absentee ballot back in time or their ballot wasn’t received in time,” said Abhiraman. “They don’t want to take this chance, and they want to vote when they are home right now for their Thanksgiving break, and that Saturday is the main date that we’re hearing where people will be available and able to vote.”
But the issues with early voting in the runoff this year extended past one Saturday. In the state’s last runoff election, there were three weeks of early voting. The state now requires just five days of early voting. Additionally, in the past, these early voting days did not so closely coincide with the certification of the general election. Now, the same time allocated to early voting nearly represents the entire runoff voting period. More than 2.5 million Georgians voted early in the state’s last runoff.
During the general election, it was revealed that election officials were working with newly hired staff while trying to accommodate a more rigorous election process, straining the capacity of election administration across the state. Now, they are facing similar challenges as they try to do the same amount of work in an even smaller amount of time yet again.
“We’ve seen election officials have to certify their votes, run a risk-limiting audit and have to respond to voter concerns at the same time they are trying to figure out when and where they can possibly hold early voting, who is available to staff it, when they can get their absentee ballots out and how they are going to process it all,” said Abhiraman.
Georgia’s Senate runoff election is critical to the landscape of national politics. It will determine the margin of Democrats’ majority in the US Senate in the new year, a crucial foothold as they just lost control of the House of Representatives. Still, Georgia voters and voting rights advocates are concerned with the state’s ability to ensure access to the vote the second time around.
“Counties are trying their best to do what they can to accommodate voters and navigate SB202,” says Abhiraman. “But, in the last Senate runoff, 4.5 million people voted. How can you possibly accommodate 4.5 million voters in less than a month?”