Georgia’s Senate Runoff Sets Records for Early Voting, but With a Big Asterisk

Georgia has eclipsed its daily record for early voting twice this week in the state’s nationally watched Senate runoff election, but even if the state keeps up the pace, it appears unlikely to match early voting turnout levels from the 2021 runoffs.

The number of early voting days has been cut roughly in half for the Dec. 6 runoff between Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and the Republican candidate, Herschel Walker, compared with last year’s Senate runoffs in Georgia.

Democrats swept both of those races, which lasted nine weeks and helped them win control of the Senate. Since then, Republicans who control Georgia’s Legislature and governor’s office passed an election law last year that compressed the runoff schedule to four weeks.

The 2021 law also sharply limited voting by mail. Election officials can no longer mail applications for absentee ballots to voters, and voters have far less time to request a ballot: During the runoff, a voter would have had to request a ballot by last week. And because of the law, far fewer drop boxes are available to return mail ballots than in the 2020 election and its runoffs.

The result is a funnel effect in Georgia. Voters have a far smaller window to cast ballots, which has led to hourslong lines around metro Atlanta, a Democratic stronghold, even though fewer people are voting ahead of Tuesday’s runoff race than in the early 2021 elections. Democrats fear the restrictions will hamper a turnout machine they spent years building — which delivered victories for Mr. Warnock, Jon Ossoff and Joseph R. Biden Jr. two years ago.

On Monday afternoon in Alpharetta, Ga., a northern suburb of Atlanta, the wait time to vote was 150 minutes, according to a website that tracks lines at polling places. At the same precinct, the wait was 90 minutes on Wednesday. Early voting ends on Friday.

Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the secretary of state’s office, wrote on Tuesday night on Twitter that nearly 310,000 people had voted that day, surpassing the previous record that had been set on Monday.

What to Know About Georgia’s Senate Runoff

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Another runoff in Georgia. The contest between Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, will be decided in a Dec. 6 runoff. It will be the state’s third Senate runoff in two years. Here’s a look at the race:

What is a runoff election? A runoff is essentially a rematch, held when none of the original candidates meet the criteria for winning. Under Georgia law, candidates must receive a majority of the vote to win an election, but Mr. Warnock and Mr. Walker both failed to clear the 50 percent threshold in the Nov. 8 election.

How long will the process take? Two years ago, Georgia was the site of two Senate runoffs that weren’t decided until January 2021, but a new election law shortened the runoff period from nine weeks to four. This year’s runoff will be on Dec. 6, with early voting beginning on Nov. 28, the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Why does Georgia have a runoff law? Georgia’s runoff law was created in the 1960s as a way to preserve white political power in a majority-white state and diminish the influence of Black politicians who could more easily win in a multicandidate race with a plurality of the vote, according to a report by the U.S. Interior Department.

What are the stakes? Even though Democratic victories in Arizona and Nevada ensured that the party would hold the Senate, a victory by Mr. Warnock would give Democrats an important 51st seat ahead of a highly challenging Senate map in 2024.

Where does the race stand now? Both sides are pouring money into ads and courting national allies for visits. But the outcome will probably come down to one big factor: turnout. With the shortened window for runoffs, the parties are investing heavily to mobilize voters during the early voting period.

At the start of Wednesday, about 833,000, nearly 12 percent, of Georgia’s seven million voters had cast ballots early in the runoff, according to the secretary of state’s office. By Election Day in last year’s runoffs, about 3.1 million people had voted early, nearly 40 percent of all the registered voters in the state, according to data compiled by the University of Florida’s U.S. Elections Project.

With control of the Senate already decided, the stakes are much lower this year. But even if the state continued drawing 300,000 voters a day for the rest of this year’s early voting period, it would fall far short of the 3.1 million early voters who turned out last year.

Volunteers in Atlanta reminding people to vote. The state’s new election law instituted several restrictions on voting by mail. Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

In the current runoff, less than one in 10 of the early votes recorded were cast by absentee ballot, state election officials reported. Earlier in the pandemic, absentee ballots were mailed out to all voters in Georgia, but because of the new election law, voters must now request them.

Republican allies of Mr. Walker have aired frustrations about his decision to skip campaigning over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, especially given the shorter timeline.

At the time that Republicans in Georgia enacted new election rules last year, they said that condensing the runoff calendar would help election administrators. But civil rights advocates and Democrats intensely criticized the law when it passed and now argue that its effect on the runoff’s voting rules and procedures will marginalize Georgians in many counties.

Georgia is one of three Southern states where the Black share of the electorate in the Nov. 8 election fell to its lowest levels since 2006. But the state also had lower Black turnout in the 2020 general election compared with the runoffs that followed. If Black turnout rises for this year’s runoff, as it did in early 2021, that could work in Mr. Warnock’s favor.

Democrats are eager to hold on to the seat, which would give them an outright majority in the Senate — meaning they would no longer need to rely on Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the tiebreaking vote in the split Senate and would claim one-seat majorities on committees. Such an outright majority would help them move legislation forward and confirm judges and presidential nominees, as well as give the party breathing room if one of its moderate members breaks ranks.

Mr. Walker, a college football legend who was pressed to run by former President Donald J. Trump, is facing Mr. Warnock for the second time in a month because neither candidate received at least 50 percent of the vote as required in the Nov. 8 election.

Mr. Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, received about 38,000 more votes than Mr. Walker earlier this month.

Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.

What to read tonight

  • In Georgia, Rick Rojas examines a less contentious but nevertheless powerful issue in the runoff campaign for Senate: insulin prices.

  • House Democrats elected new leaders, including Representative Hakeem Jeffries as minority leader, to take the mantle from the three octogenarians who have led them for two decades, Annie Karni and Emily Cochrane report.

  • The House resoundingly approved legislation to avert a nationwide rail strike by imposing a labor agreement between rail companies and their workers.

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