Georgia voters answering call of both parties to cast runoff ballots early

The arena where the Atlanta Hawks play is open for early voting this week with less capacity than it had during advance voting in the general election because basketball games are taking place there again. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

More than 1.1 million Georgians voted in the first four days of the state’s runoff this week, a slight decrease from more than 1.2 million voters who cast ballots in the first four days of early voting for the Nov. 3 2020 general election.

As of Thursday afternoon, in-person voting is up by 19% over November, while absentee mail-in voting is down 28%, according to GeorgiaVotes.com.

The typical drop-off between a general election and a runoff is much higher, but of course it’s anything but typical for a state to have two U.S. Senate seats at stake at once in a runoff.

The last time a Senate seat came down to a runoff after a presidential election in Georgia was in December 2008, when about 2.1 million Georgians cast ballots for former GOP U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss or his Democratic rival Jim Martin. Just the month before, more than 3.9 million Georgians voted for either former President Barack Obama or Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain in the presidential election.

The stakes for both parties will be much higher for the Jan. 5 election – if either of the state’s Republican incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue can stave off their opponents, Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, Republicans are set to keep control of the Senate and be able to erect roadblocks to President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda.

Those high stakes and big campaign spending from both parties could keep the runoff turnout closer to the general election this time.

“People are excited, and they certainly are aware of it, with the amount of money being spent on all sides to promote the notion of this election,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “Often, we suspect one of the reasons in the past we’ve seen drop-offs in participation is some people simply weren’t aware there was a runoff. It would be hard for you, if you’re at all politically interested, to not be aware of the runoff taking place right now.”

As of Thursday, the total combined ad spending for the Georgia runoffs had surpassed a stunning $453 million, according to political ad tracker AdImpact.

The preliminary early vote data suggests high turnout among Black Georgians could be partially behind the preliminary runoff turnout surge. So far, 32.3% of the vote has come from Black Georgians. Black voters accounted for 27.8% of the general election turnout.

The five counties with the highest turnout relative to their turnout for the Nov. 3 election – Talbot, Stewart, Randolph, Terrell and Calhoun counties – are all part of Georgia’s Black Belt, a region that stretches across the middle portion of the state with high proportions of African American residents who typically vote for Democrats.

Much of that high turnout can be explained by fears of contracting COVID-19, said Talbot County Commission Chair Sher’Londa Walker.

“I think the virus has a lot to do with it,” she said. “They’re thinking if I get in and get out, I won’t have much interaction with people. That’s what I think, get in, get out, try to avoid contracting the virus as much as possible.”

But polling suggests Black voters across Georgia are also motivated to cast their vote because they want to see change in the Senate.

In a survey of Black Georgia voters released Friday by the Black Lives Matter Political Action Committee and HIT Strategies, 90% of people said they are strongly interested in who wins the two U.S. Senate elections, and 84% plan to cast their votes before Election Day.

Perdue received nearly 74,000 more votes from Black men in 2020 than he did in 2014 as President Donald Trump increased his support among those voters, but the poll suggests Perdue might not carry over the Trump bump without the president on the ballot.

“Perdue’s drop-off in Black men’s support revealed in this poll — from 17% in the Nov. 3 election to just 2% now — could determine the outcome of the runoff, assuming all other factors remain the same,” said Terrance Woodbury, Democratic Pollster and a partner at HIT Strategies.

Among all Black Georgia voters, Perdue’s support has fallen from 11% to 2%, and Loeffler’s has dropped from 6% to 2%, the survey found.

Democrats and Republicans are now both encouraging their supporters to vote early in person or by mail before Christmas Eve, when holiday celebrations may remove voting from the tops of Georgians’ to-do lists. The last day of early voting varies by county.

“Even the president, who was discouraging Republicans from voting early absentee, I don’t think he’s doing that now,” Bullock said. “The Republican Party is certainly encouraging likely supporters to do early absentee voting.”

At a Macon rally Thursday alongside Perdue and Loeffler, Vice President Mike Pence told the party faithful to vote early and sought to allay worries about election security.

Some Republicans, led by President Trump, have promoted baseless conspiracy theories about interference in the election. Though the claims lack evidence, some GOP leaders worry they will discourage voters who care more for Trump than down ballot Republicans from casting ballots.

“I want you to be confident about your vote,” Pence said. “Our great state GOP chair and these senators will tell you, you request a ballot, we’re on them this time, we’re watching them. We’re going to secure our polls, secure our drop boxes, and you can be confident, you mail in that absentee ballot, every single one of them will be counted.”