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Early Voting for Georgia’s Senate Runoffs May Point to Record Turnout

(Photo by Sue Dorfman / Zuma Press)

Across Georgia, turnout in the opening week of early voting for two U.S. Senate runoffs has been robust and may even set records, despite ongoing Republican efforts to disqualify voters—efforts that courts keep rejecting.

On Thursday, two federal courts dismissed GOP lawsuits to challenge the state’s processing of returned absentee ballots. The suits, filed by local and national GOP organizations, attacked procedures that had been created by Georgia’s elected Republican officeholders, who have overseen Georgia’s elections for years.

The voter suppression efforts continue as the local Republicans are seeking to challenge 16,000 voter registrations in Cobb County, outside Atlanta, by citing porous data—the Postal Service’s change of addresses. That database would generate false positives, voter registration experts said, because it only named heads of households and addresses, while state voter files list all registered voters. (Local officials are likely to reject the challenges, although they fit a pattern of seeking to impede voters and the process until the GOP wins.)

Meanwhile, across Georgia, early voting—called “advance voting” in the state—began on Monday, December 14, for the Senate runoffs and a seat on the Public Service Commission. That runoff is a locally important race as that body regulates utility rates and issues such as rural broadband. While the partisan jousting in the Senate runoffs has continued and become increasingly personal, more voters than typically participate in runoffs appear to be engaged and turning out.

“I feel more comfortable voting in person. There was so much controversy over the mail ballots, that we just wanted to come and vote,” said Toni Kennelly, who was waiting in line with her husband on a brisk morning outside a library in Milton, a northeast Atlanta suburb in Fulton County.

“It happened to be a good day to come,” said Shannon Kennelly, who has voted in every presidential election since 1964. “We took some Covid tests and both were negative… We figured we wouldn’t stand in line very long.”

The couple’s dutiful and low-key approach was a frequent sight. More than 900,000 voters cast ballots in the first four days of early voting. The runoffs are seen as high-stakes elections, said voters, poll workers and party observers.

“When people understand how high the stakes are, people show up,” said Angela Clark-Smith, a lawyer and Georgia Democrat Party observer stationed in a former Sam’s Club department store which suburban Atlanta’s DeKalb County converted into a voting center. “They’re showing up and showing out. We had record voting that surpassed the presidential election. The first day, 168,000 Georgians showed up and voted [statewide]. That’s amazing. People understand.”

“They [voters] will be coming out saying, ‘Hey, we want to make a difference,’” predicted Patricia Roberts, a Dekalb County poll worker at the same site and a longtime peace and justice activist. “With everything that’s been going on, they are also educating their children… It’s not so much the history of why they need to vote. It’s imperative for them to live their everyday lives better.”

“Whether it’s red or blue, you’re passionate,” said Shannon Kennelly.

Georgia’s runoff elections historically are low-turnout races where small blocs of voters can sway the outcome. In 2020’s presidential election, 5 million Georgians voted, which was 57.3 percent of its registered voters. By Thursday, nearly 1.3 million Georgians had applied for an absentee ballot, the U.S. Elections Project reported. Those already voting represent a 12 percent turnout.

Of the requested absentee ballots, one-third have already been returned and accepted, which suggests the voter turnout will continue to rise. (About 1,600 of the returned 470,000 ballots were rejected, meaning that local officials and party volunteers will try to contact those voters to cure whatever was at issue).

Officials expect most of the outstanding 850,000 absentee ballots will be returned either via the mail, at official drop boxes, or taken to an early voting site where voters would exchange them for a regular ballot. Since the November 3 election, 76,000 Georgians have registered to vote for the runoffs.

Roberts, the DeKalb County poll worker, said that notable numbers of people who had received absentee ballots were choosing to surrender their mailed-out ballot and vote in person with a regular ballot. “They keep saying that they don’t want any mistakes. They don’t want any problems,” she said.

Clarke-Smith, the Georgia Democratic Party observer in DeKalb, one of the state’s most populous counties, said that voters appear to have learned how to navigate the voting process. She has specialized in helping voters with provisional ballots, she said, which are issued if voters were not listed in their precinct’s poll books. So far, there have been very few voter registration problems, she said, which contrasts with Republican litigation claiming widespread fraudulent voting.

“In two days, this polling site only had one provisional ballot, which says to me that people really get it,” Clarke-Smith said. “They have to be prepared to have all of their ducks in a row to come out and have their voices heard. They are doing that. I don’t think that many other polling places are different from this one.”

Not every poll worker had glowing reports. Two young men in the same voting center noted most of the people voting were middle-aged and older. They said that a lot of their peers didn’t vote because they did not think that it mattered.

But across the state, various groups representing the state’s increasingly diverse demographics were already engaged in get-out-the-vote efforts. Some of those efforts were discussed in video conference calls this week.

For example, Native Americans based at Standing Rock, North Dakota, were organizing efforts to urge 15,000 Native Americans in Georgia to turn out. Azka Mahmoud, the communications and outreach director for the Georgia chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said the chapter was trying to mobilize 71,000 registered voters.

In the southern part of the state, the Southwest Georgia Project was working with other women’s groups to encourage turnout. In metro Atlanta, Asian-Americans Advancing Justice, was successfully turning out thousands of young voters.

“There is a lot of awareness,” said Clark-Smith, who has had various roles working in and observing elections for three decades. “The southern parts of Georgia are probably no different because of one determinant, which is there is a lot of transition [underway] in Georgia. There are people who are coming here from lots of other states, which has really helped to make it a diverse state in general… We see it everywhere.”

(Reporting for this article from Georgia was contributed by Sue Dorfman, a photographer with the Documenting Democracy Project.)

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