Early turnout in Georgia’s fast approaching Senate runoff between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker has broken daily voting records three times since polls opened in all 159 counties last Monday.
Ahead of Tuesday’s runoff, state officials celebrated the historic feat. Election experts contextualized those numbers as unusually high due to a voting window that was condensed by lawmakers as part of a broader overhaul of state elections.
“Georgia is a national leader in voter access and security,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in a statement last week. “We have historic turnout levels and those who want to vote are voting – we think this level of voter turnout is excellent, and we will continue to work with counties to encourage them to open more early voting locations in the future. “
On Friday, the last day of early voting for the second round, 352,953 people cast their ballots, according to national election data – bringing the total number of early votes, in person or by mail, to more than 1.8 million.
Friday’s total broke Tuesday’s single-day record of 304,683, which was higher than in-person early voting in any previous election year, according to the secretary of state’s office, other than the total of Monday of 303,665.
That pace eclipses previous records set by voters who voted in ballots in 2018 and 2016, according to state data.
How a 2021 law changed the runoff schedule
A 2021 bill signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp reduced the deadline for early voting in a runoff from a minimum of 17 days to a minimum of five. This was done as part of a sweeping law passed by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature to change many aspects of Georgia’s election process.
Critics argued that some elements of the law amounted to voter suppression. These included Stacey Abrams (who unsuccessfully challenged Kemp in 2018 and 2022) and President Joe Biden.
Raffensperger and other Republicans have strongly pushed back on that charge, noting that turnout in the state has not declined. They said the act was about the integrity of elections.
“Abrams and President Biden lied to the people of Georgia and the country for political gain,” Raffensperger said last year. “From day one, I said Georgia’s election law balanced security and access, and the facts proved me right.”
More recently, some observers and advocates have pointed to long queues at early voting locations – exacerbated, perhaps, by the level of interest. Gabriel Sterling, a senior official in Raffensperger’s office, wrote on Twitter that administrative decisions such as the number of polling stations are made by each county.
Even with high levels of engagement, experts told ABC News that this year’s totals are unlikely to rival early voting turnout levels from the 2021 Senate runoff, when the vote anticipated was available for several weeks.
“Early in-person voting is popular and relatively new,” said Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia. “It’s compressed into a single week instead of being spread out over three weeks. So if you want to do it, you have to act fast.”
Did Saturday’s vote change the situation?
Bullock noted that a jump in the numbers could also be attributed to a Democratic-led lawsuit that allowed some of the state’s largest counties – which vote overwhelmingly for Democrats – to open polls last Saturday despite advice from the Secretary of State’s office that would have prevented voting within two days of a holiday like Thanksgiving.
Once a judge allowed voting on Saturday, those counties benefited when traditionally GOP areas of the state opted out. State data shows about 70,000 people voted early in person that day and more than three-quarters of the ballots took place around Atlanta.
“Some of the Democratic counties were able to jump over the Republican counties,” Bullock said. “It could have really made the difference. It could be a game-changer once we know the results.”
Against the historical trend, even if some voters stay at home
Historically, runoffs in Georgia have seen lower voter turnout than general elections. But 2021 and now 2022 were different: Two years ago, runoff votes accounted for about 90% of the general election total, Bullock said, while in Senate runoffs in 2008 and 1982, it accounted for about 57% turnout in general elections.
Bullock said he expects this year to be lower than attendance in 2021, but much higher than other projections.
“In the second round of the 2020 election, the turnout was higher than what we had voted in our general election this year – I think [this cycle] would be somewhere above the 10% decline we saw two years ago,” he said.
Although the race between Walker and Warnock will not determine Senate control, Republicans and Democrats have warned voters not to underestimate the consequences of who holds the seat.
Still, the relatively lower stakes compared to last year’s playoffs — which decided the Senate majority — could keep some out of the polls, Bullock said.
“It won’t control the Senate. And there’s only one contest on the ballot,” he said. “And I also think what’s basically happening is Republican ids who were conflicted about whether to vote for Herschel Walker…may have ignored his issues and voted for him because Senate control was important. I think these types of conflicted voters are just going to sit this one out.”
Alexander Robinson, a George Washington University student from Athens, Georgia, returned to the state over the weekend to solicit Warnock, he told ABC News. He said after knocking on countless doors, about half of the voters he spoke to were first-time voters, most of whom had already voted for the incumbent.
“The fact that the number of early votes has been as high as it has been so far, the fact that there are no other popular Republicans on the ticket leads me to believe that our chances are pretty good and I’m reasonably optimistic,” he said. at a Warnock campaign event on Saturday.
The demographic breakdown of early turnout shows that black Georgians are keeping pace with white voters, 31.9 to 55.1 percent, roughly equal to their overall share of the population, and the most active age groups are are between 55 and 75 years old. Women voted more than men, 56-43.8%.
Bullock said if the percentage of black voters who showed up in the runoff stays above 30% through Election Day, that would be “pretty good” for Democrats.
“Warnock will get 90% of that vote, maybe more,” he said. “The electorate that will show up on Election Day will be a much whiter electorate and a more Republican electorate.”
Walker’s team, meanwhile, made the argument last week that there was “good news” for him too, with hundreds of thousands more votes in state-friendly regions that had yet to be cast.
At a Walker campaign event outside of Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship game between Georgia and Louisiana State University, Briana Stopp of Canton, Georgia, said her son – a first voter and student – had voted while he was home for Thanksgiving.
He braved a two-hour line to vote for ‘life and values’ by choosing Walker, his mother said.
“He texted me, ‘Herschel better appreciate that,'” she said with a pitch.
Stopp plans to vote on Tuesday: “That’s my thing.”