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Early voting for Georgia Senate runoff shattered records. Why?

(ATLANTA) — Early turnout in Georgia’s fast approaching Senate runoff between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker broke daily voting records three times since polls in all 159 counties opened last Monday.

Ahead of the Tuesday runoff, state officials have celebrated the historic feat. Elections experts contextualized those numbers as unusually high because of a voting period that was condensed by lawmakers as part of a larger 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 are having historic levels of turnout and those who want to vote are voting- we believe this level of voter participation is excellent, and we’ll keep working with counties to encourage them to open more Early Voting locations in the future.”

On Friday, the last day of early voting for the runoff, 352,953 people cast ballots, according to state elections data — bringing the total number of early votes, either in person or absentee, to more than 1.8 million.

Friday’s total beat out Tuesday’s one-day record of 304,683, which was higher than early in-person voting in any other previous election year, according to the secretary of state’s office, other than Monday’s total of 303,665.

That pace eclipses previous records set by of voters who cast ballots in runoffs in 2018 and 2016, the state data shows.

How a 2021 law changed runoff timeline

A 2021 bill signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp shrank the timeframe for early voting in a runoff from a minimum of 17 days to a minimum of five. That was done as part of a sweeping law passed by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature to change many aspects of how elections are conducted in Georgia.

Critics argued that some elements of the law amounted to voter suppression. Among those were 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 turnout in the state hasn’t fallen off. They said the law was about election integrity.

“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 that Georgia’s election law balanced security and access, and the facts have proved me right.”

More recently, some observers and advocates highlighted long lines at early voting locations — exacerbated, perhaps, by the level of interest. Gabriel Sterling, a top official in Raffensperger’s office, wrote on Twitter that administration decisions like the number of polling places 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 runoffs, when early voting was available for several weeks.

“Early in-person voting is popular, and it’s relatively new,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “It’s compressed into a single week as opposed to being spread over three weeks. So if you’re going to do it, you got to move quickly.”

Saturday voting a ‘game changer’?

Bullock noted a jump in the numbers could also be attributed to a Democrat-led lawsuit that allowed some of the state’s largest counties — who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats — to open polls last Saturday despite guidance from the secretary of state’s office that would have prevented voting within two days of a holiday like Thanksgiving.

Once a judge permitted Saturday voting, those counties took advantage of it while traditionally GOP areas of the state chose not to. State data shows about 70,000 people voted early in person that day and more than three-quarters of the ballots were around Atlanta.

“Some of the Democratic counties got to jump on the Republican counties,” Bullock said. “That could have really made the difference. It could be a game changer once we know what the results are.”

Bucking the historical trend, even if some voters stay home

Historically, runoffs in Georgia have seen lower turnout than general elections. But 2021 and now 2022 were different: Two years ago, the amount of runoff votes was about 90% of the general election totals, Bullock said, while during the Senate runoffs in 2008 and 1982 it was about 57% of general election turnout.

Bullock said he expects this year to be less than turnout in 2021 but much higher than other showings.

“In the 2020 runoff election, turnout was more than we had voted in our general election this year — I think [this cycle] would be somewhere above the 10% drop-off we saw two years ago,” he said.

Though the race between Walker and Warnock won’t determine control of the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats have cautioned voters not to underestimate the consequences of who holds the seat.

Still, the relatively lower stakes compared to last year’s runoffs — which did decide the Senate majority — could be keeping some from the polls, Bullock said.

“This isn’t gonna control the Senate. And there’s only one contest on the ballot,” he said. “And I think also what basically happens is Republican identifiers who were conflicted about whether to vote for Herschel Walker … may have overlooked his problems and voted for him because control of the Senate was important. I think those kinds of conflicted voters will simply sit this one out.”

Alexander Robinson, a George Washington University student originally from Athens, Georgia, came back to the state over the weekend to canvass for Warnock, he told ABC News. He said that after knocking on countless doors, about half of the voters he spoke to were early voters, most of whom had cast their votes already for the incumbent.

“The fact that early voting numbers have been as high as they’ve been so far, the fact that there’s not another popular Republican 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 for the early turnout shows Black Georgians keeping pace with white voters, 31.9-55.1%, about equal to their overall shares of the population, and the most active age groups have been between 55-75 years old. Women have cast more ballots than men, 56-43.8%.

Bullock said that if the percentage of Black voters who turned out in the runoff remains above 30% through Election Day, that would be “pretty good” for Democrats.

“Warnock is gonna get 90% of that vote, maybe more,” he said. “The electorate that’s going to show up on Election Day is gonna be a much whiter electorate and a more Republican electorate.”

Walker’s team, meanwhile, made the argument last week that there was “great news” for him too, with hundreds of thousands of more votes from friendly areas of the state still to turn out.

At a Walker campaign event outside Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship game between Georgia and Louisiana State University, Briana Stopp from Canton, Georgia, said her son — a first-time voter and college student — had cast his ballot while he was home for Thanksgiving.

He braved a two-hour line to vote for “life and values” by picking Walker, his mom said.

“He texted me, ‘Herschel better appreciate this,"” she said with a launch.

Stopp plans to vote on Tuesday: “That’s my thing.”

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