Though the Electoral College is meeting Monday to formally pick Joe Biden as the next President of the United States, all eyes are on Georgia as in-person early voting begins in two crucial Senate runoff elections that could have a tremendous impact on the early phase of Biden's presidency.
Over half of the 5 million votes cast in the general election on Nov. 3 in Georgia, which proved crucial to flipping the state blue for the first time since 1992, were cast during the two-week early voting period.
“It’s very important,” said Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is challenging GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler in one of the two races, said Friday after a speech. “It’s how we won in the general and it’s how we’re going to win in the runoff.”
In one race, Warnock faces the incumbent Loeffler; Warnock captured a higher percentage of the vote than Loeffler (32.9% to 25.9%), but GOP Rep. Doug Collins, also a candidate in the election, captured 20% of the vote.
In the other, Georgia's Senior Senator, David Perdue, received 49.7% of the vote, compared to 47.9% for his opponent, Democrat Jon Ossoff.
In Georgia, if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the election proceeds to a runoff between the top two finishers.
Early in-person voting could be even more crucial in the runoff elections because of the significantly shorter time frame for voters to request and send back ballots by mail.
The race has critical implications for the early part of Biden's presidency – Democrats winning both seats would create a 50-50 tie in the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote, which could mean an easier path for confirming Cabinet picks and enacting a legislative agenda that includes comprehensive COVID-19 relief, which has been deadlocked in the current Congress.
No one expects turnout to be as high in the runnofs as the record turnout in the Nov. 3 general election, but Bernard Fraga, an Emory University professor who studies voting, said overall turnout could reach 4 million.
Gabriel Sterling, election system implementation manager for the Georgia Secretary of State, said he expects a surge of people on 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.
“As always, on the first day of early voting, it’s kind of like when the iPhone comes out,” Sterling said last week. “People want to go get the new iPhone at the Apple store. They’re going to stand in line for a while.”
One question is how many mail-in ballots will be cast in the election. By Friday, 1.2 million mail-in ballots had been requested and 200,000 returned. In the general election, Biden won 65% of the 1.3 million absentee ballots that were returned in Georgia, a record fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 86,000 voters who did not vote in November had requested ballots as of Friday, according to state elections data analyzed by Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who tracks voting via the U.S. Elections Project.
Fraga said it’s possible that mail-in ballots, if anything, will be even more favorable for Democrats in the runoff because of attacks on the integrity of mail-in voting by President Donald 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.
“Any compressed timeline means people will be less likely to vote by mail,” Fraga said.
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.
Cobb County, once a suburban Republican stronghold trending Democratic, planned to cut early polling places from 11 to five. The county election manager said employees are exhausted and she didn’t have enough to staff more than that. After an outcry that closures would harm Black voters, the county said it would open two more locations and relocate a third.
Heavily Republican Forsyth County is cutting early voting locations from 11 to five and cutting hours, rejecting on Tuesday an effort to expand sites. Elections Director Mandi Smith told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that with a shorter ballot and fewer voters expected, 11 sites aren’t needed. Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta said the move will make lines longer and voting harder for people who don’t speak English well.
Forsyth Republicans applauded the move, saying on the party Facebook page that the county rejected the “Democrats scheme” for more sites. The GOP reasoned that even early in-person voting is prone to cheating, although it didn’t explain how, with voters required to appear in person with photo identification.
“We fought to protect the integrity of our elections and not allow opportunities for more fraud,” the party wrote.
Republican Hall County, with a large Latino population, is cutting early voting sites from eight to four. Democratic Douglas County will also have fewer voting sites.
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.
The center found voters at polling locations slated to close waited an average of 49 minutes before the general election, compared to an average of 43 minutes at locations staying open.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.