Georgia’s Republican Party was having a terrible time in January 2021. Joe Biden had become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1992. Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won their U.S. Senate races in a twin set of run-off elections. However, out of crisis, and in response to former President Donald Trump’s lie about a “rigged election,” the GOP-controlled state Legislature saw an opportunity.
The resulting bill — SB 202 — has been rightly decried as representing a new round of voter suppression in the Deep South state where the demographics are shifting away from the rural white voters that the GOP has relied on. Many of the changes made in the name of “election integrity” were clearly considered a means to hamper Democratic turnout. But we may learn Tuesday that instead of hurting Warnock, the law hindered the odds of a victory by his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker.
The reduced turnaround hasn’t necessarily been to Walker’s benefit.
Among other things, Georgia’s new voting law changed how runoff elections are conducted. The last runoff Warnock faced came on Jan. 5, 2021, nine weeks after Election Day 2020. In the meantime, Democrats hustled to mobilize the people who had already voted in November and register new voters ahead of the January vote. They also pushed Warnock supporters to vote early by mailing ballots, using drop boxes or showing up in person.
The law shrunk this runoff period to just 28 days. Many of the pandemic-related expansions of early voting access were slashed, which limited the number of drop boxes and the number of days they were available. Also, this time, the last day to register new voters for the run-off election was the day before the primary election. And early in-person voting was shortened from a minimum of 17 days to five days.
State election officials tried to stop early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, arguing that state law prohibited it. Warnock’s campaign argued in court that the law didn’t apply to a runoff, and a judge agreed with Warnock. The GOP appealed to the state Supreme Court, but despite the conservative make-up of the bench lost there, too. (Georgia Republicans then hastily urged their voters to be sure to get out to vote that Saturday, which is all kinds of laughable.)
In spite of — or perhaps because of — the condensed run-off period, multiple early voting records were smashed as voters made sure to cast their ballots. That isn’t to ignore the signs that the law did make it harder to vote; for example, increased turnout over fewer days meant longer lines, which likely deterred some who might otherwise have cast their ballot.
But the reduced turnaround hasn’t necessarily been to Walker’s benefit. Numerous organizing issues, and a lack of hustle from the candidate himself, suggest that having such a brief window to sell Walker to voters might have been a mistake, The New York Times reported:
“We almost need a little bit more time for Herschel’s campaign to get everything off the ground,” said Jason Shepherd, the former chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party, pointing to the transition from a general election campaign to a runoff sprint. […] “I think we’re behind the eight ball on this one,” Mr. Shepherd added.
Meanwhile, the provision of the new law that prevents newly registered voters from taking part on Tuesday doesn’t just hurt Democrats: It also means that any Georgians who might have signed up specifically to support Walker couldn’t do so. That might be a problem given how badly Walker underperformed compared to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp last month. (Kemp drew more than 200,000 votes than Walker did.) One of the big questions Tuesday is whether Republicans who supported Kemp then but not Walker will show up and grudgingly vote for him.
What we can discern about those who’ve already voted looks good for Warnock.
What we can discern about those who’ve already voted looks good for Warnock. “Notably, more than 76,000 of early runoff voters did not vote in the 2022 general election, according to GeorgiaVotes.com, a site that uses public data to analyze voting trends,” NBC News reported on Saturday. “Among Georgians under 30 years old, 15.5% of early runoff voters didn’t turn out for the general election. Additionally, 8.4% of Hispanics and 9.5% of Asian Americans who have shown up for the runoff didn’t vote in the Nov. 8 election.”
There’s a supreme irony in all of these Republican-made changes, not least of them being that before last year, Democrats fared poorly in Georgia’s runoff elections because they found it hard to motivate their base to return to the polls. Now, the GOP with its rule changes, and its assumption that Black candidates could be interchangeable to the electorate, may soon learn that 2020 wasn’t a fluke for Democrats and that even though two-time gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams may not have won her own elections, the organizing machine she and others have been steadily building can get results.
Could Walker still pull out a win? Yes, clearly. Stranger things have happened in politics. But, while Republicans still claim that SB 2020 was about election security, it was clearly drafted to help prevent a repeat of Democrats’ 2020 sweep. And yet, as polls open, despite all their best efforts, Georgia Republicans can’t be breathing much easier than they did in January 2021.