Georgia Court of Appeals clears way for early voting in high-stakes Senate runoff

Herschel Walker, left, and Senator Raphael Warnock

Herschel Walker and Senator Raphael Warnock. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Todd Kirkland/AP, John Bazemore/AP)

On Monday, the Georgia Court of Appeals handed Democrats a major victory, allowing a lower court ruling allowing an early vote this weekend ahead of the Dec. 6 Senate runoff between incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel walker.

On Friday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cox sided with attorneys’ arguments for Warnock that voters are allowed to cast their ballots on Saturday, Nov. 26, despite a state statute that one prohibits early voting if there is a “public or legal holiday” on the Thursday or Friday before the day in question. Thursday is Thanksgiving, and Friday is a state holiday that formerly commemorated the life of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

“The court finds that the failure to hold the Saturday vote will irreparably harm the plaintiffs, their members and constituents, and their preferred runoff candidate,” Cox wrote in his statement.

In response, Georgia officials appealed the verdict, asking the state to stay the decision and prevent counties from offering an early vote on Saturday. The Georgia Republican Party, the Republican National Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have also joined the legal challenge.

Judge Thomas Cox.

Thomas Cox, Justice of the Fulton County Superior Court. (Bryn Anderson/AP)

In a 26-page court filing, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr argued that Cox’s order “fundamentally misses the mark.”

“He wrongly concluded that the holiday-weekend clause applies only to a ‘primary’ or ‘election’ and not to a ‘runoff,’ which cannot exist outside of a primary or election,” Carr wrote. “Therefore, the Supreme Court’s interpretation fundamentally misses the mark by ignoring that the Senate runoff — 3 — is an ‘election,’ as that term is defined and used in the Georgia Election Code and Constitution.”

But on Monday, the Court of Appeal sided with Warnock’s lawyers and allowed the lower court’s verdict to stand.

Georgia Democrats have been campaigning against SB 202, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law in 2021, which spells out new voting restrictions like the Saturday voting clause and a reduction in the deadline for early voting in a runoff election. In their lawsuit, Warnock’s attorneys, affiliated with the Georgia Democratic Party and the campaign arm of the party’s national Senate campaign, argued that the early voting provision related to state holidays does not apply to runoff elections.

People wait in line for early voting

People line up at a polling station in Atlanta on November 4 to vote early for the midterm elections. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

In the midterm elections, Warnock and Walker each failed to reach the 50% majority threshold required for a candidate to be declared the winner. According to a recent AARP poll of Georgians days after the election, Warnock has a slight advantage over Walker at 51% to 47%. The error rate of the survey is 4.4 percentage points.

During the 2021 Georgia runoff between incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff, and between GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Warnock, Democrats turned both seats blue thanks to increased turnout, particularly in minority communities in the state. The latest AARP poll shows Warnock Walker leading among black voters by an 88% to 7% margin.

Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock

Democratic Senate nominees Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock at a rally in Atlanta, January 4, 2021. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

While the midterm elections have already secured a Senate majority for Democrats, Georgia’s runoff remains hotly contested. It will decide whether the chamber remains evenly split or whether the Democrats will have a one-seat cushion. A 51-49 Senate composition would give Democrats breathing room to try to advance President Biden’s agenda, including the possibility of confirming more executive, judiciary and Supreme Court nominees.

In an interview last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said a 50-50 Senate “slows everything down,” adding, “It makes a huge difference to us.”

Following the appeals court ruling, it’s not clear how many counties will open their polling stations for voting on Saturday. Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, has included Saturday’s early voting in its schedule, but the decision will be left to officials in each county.