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Turnout in Georgia U.S. Senate runoff approaches presidential levels

Mark Niesse
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta — Almost as many Georgians have voted in the U.S. Senate runoffs as at the same point before the presidential election, a huge turnout that reflects the high stakes of the race.

Over 1.1 million people had voted through Thursday, most of them at early voting locations that opened across the state this week, according to state election data.

Early voters stand in line at the State Farm Arena on Monday in Atlanta. Voting rights groups have filed lawsuits against four Georgia counties for failing to offer sufficient early voting for the Jan. 5 runoff election.

Such high turnout is unusual for a runoff, especially when compared to presidential elections that get the most voter interest. About 5 million people voted in last month’s election.

But this runoff is extraordinary, with two statewide races on the ballot that will determine control of the U.S. Senate. Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue face Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. In addition, Republican Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald faces Democrat Daniel Blackman.

At least 150,000 people voted early each day this week, likely motivated by the importance of the race and an unrelenting stream of TV ads, text messages and campaign fliers.

Votes won’t be counted until polls close at 7 p.m. on Jan. 5, but data on early and absentee ballots can provide clues about who has voted so far.

Of voters who participated in June’s primary election, Democrats outnumber Republicans in the runoff.

About 59% of runoff voters so far who also voted in the primary requested Democratic Party ballots. About 39% pulled Republican Party ballots.

However, one-third of runoff voters didn’t show up for the primary, leaving no record this year of which party they prefer, according to voter history data analyzed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In addition, nearly 76,000 new voters registered since the presidential race. These voters are first-time registrants, many of whom recently either turned 18 years old or became Georgia residents.

Black voters and voters over 65 years old are showing up in large numbers.

About 32% of early and absentee voters whose race is known are Black, compared to 27% in the general election. Black voters overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.

Older voters who tend to back Republican candidates are also casting many early ballots. About 44% of early runoff voters are over 65, a group that made up 25% of overall general election voters.

Over-65 voters are more likely to vote absentee, and they were eligible to be automatically mailed absentee ballots for the runoff if they requested them earlier in the year. About 57% of them returned absentee ballots, with the rest voting in-person this week.

Among all voters, 57% have voted in-person and 43% submitted absentee ballots.

Georgia’s most populated counties are recording the highest number of voters, including DeKalb, Cobb and Fulton counties in metro Atlanta. Overall, 15% of Georgia’s 7.7 million registered voters have already cast ballots.

Turnout lagged in other metro areas that tend to vote for Democratic Party candidates, including Gwinnett, Chatham, Muscogee and Richmond counties.

DeKalb voters have turned out in droves — more than 101,000 so far.

“For a runoff, it has been kind of historic,” said Erica Hamilton, the county’s elections director.

In rural areas that generally support Republicans, there’s no clear turnout trend.

When broken down by region, congressional districts that cover most of the Atlanta area and northeast Georgia have recorded the most voters so far. Districts including Gwinnett, southeast Georgia, northwest Georgia and Augusta lag behind.

Fewer voters usually participate in runoffs, but races that gain national attention are the exception.

During the 2017 runoff for Congress between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Ossoff, turnout rose from 44% in the initial 18-candidate race to 58% in the runoff. In last month’s general election, turnout reached 66%.

It remains to be seen whether turnout will continue at this pace during the remaining two weeks of early voting, a period that will force early voting sites to close on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

In addition, some counties aren’t offering Saturday voting during the runoff, a decision that is being contested in several lawsuits filed this week. Polls will be open as normal on election day Jan. 5.