Georgia’s midterm election cycle continues with the much-anticipated US Senate runoff between incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and controversial Republican nominee Herschel Walker. Unlike in years past, however, under the state’s new election integrity law, early voting for the runoff begins right as the general election concludes, giving voters a historically small window to cast their ballot.
In previous elections, runoffs lasted nine weeks. Under the new law SB202, which includes a number of new voting restrictions, the deadline has been significantly reduced and must be 28 days after the general election. This timeframe is particularly important as voters are now required to register 30 days before an election, making it impossible for new voters to register between the general election, which took place on November 8, and the run-off.
SB202 is causing confusion for both voters and election officials – especially when it comes to Saturday’s vote. Saturday’s voting was made possible during snap voting in past elections, leading officials and voters to believe Saturday, November 26, would be a snap voting day in the runoff elections this year. However, under the new law, voting cannot take place near a holiday, which — due to both Thanksgiving and a state holiday formerly known as Robert E Lee Day — sets the official start of early voting to Monday, March 28 instead November would have been postponed.
Voting on Saturday, November 26 is now permitted following a lawsuit filed by the Democratic Party of Georgia, Warnock for Georgia and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It has been argued that this particular election day is crucial for many voters as it would represent the only possible vote on Saturday under the state’s tighter schedule. (The state tried unsuccessfully to block the sentence, but so far it has been upheld.)
Vasu Abhiraman, associate director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU of Georgia, also points to the importance of this voting day for college students. “We spoke to so many students who couldn’t vote [general] election because they either didn’t get their absentee ballots back in a timely manner or didn’t receive their ballots in a timely manner,” Abhiraman said. “They don’t want to take that risk and they want to vote when they’re home right now for their Thanksgiving break and this Saturday is the prime date that we’re hearing about where people can be available and vote.”
But problems with early voting in the runoff extend beyond a Saturday this year. The state’s last runoff allowed three weeks of early voting. The state now needs just five days for an early vote. Also, in the past, these early election days have not coincided so closely with the confirmation of the general election. Now the same time allotted for early voting represents almost the entire runoff 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 employees as they attempt to facilitate a more rigorous election process, straining the capacity of election administration across the state. Now they face similar challenges as they try to do the same amount of work over again in an even shorter amount of time.
“We’ve seen election officials need to confirm their votes, conduct a risk-limiting audit and respond to voter concerns, all while trying to figure out when and where they might be able to do early voting, who they have available staff for, when they do get out their voting cards and how they’re going to process all of this,” Abhiraman said.
The Senate runoff in Georgia is crucial to the landscape of national politics. It will determine the margin of the majority of US Senate Democrats in the new year, a crucial foothold since they just lost control of the House of Representatives. Still, Georgia voters and pro-suffrage advocates are concerned about the state’s ability to provide second-time voting access.
“Counties are trying their best to accommodate voters and navigate SB202,” says Abhiraman. “But in the last Senate runoff, 4.5 million people voted. How can you accommodate 4.5 million voters in less than a month?”