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Democrats sue to allow Saturday voting in Georgia runoff amid holiday dispute

Officials have said early voting on Saturday is not legally possible, because of a state holiday once known as ‘Robert E. Lee’s Birthday’

Demonstrators in Decatur, Ga., in late October. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)
4 min

ATLANTA — Democrats are suing to force Georgia election officials to allow early voting on a Saturday ahead of the Dec. 6 U.S. Senate runoff election. The suit comes in response to a determination by state officials that law forbids voting right after Thanksgiving and a state holiday that once honored Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The state’s decision, announced over the weekend, prompted a lawsuit from the Democrat fighting for reelection, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, as well as the Georgia Democratic Party and the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm. They argue in their suit that current guidance “applies only to primary and general elections, not runoffs.”

Without action by the courts, the suit states, Georgia voters “will be deprived of their right to vote during the advance voting period permitted by Georgia law.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) responded to the lawsuit Tuesday morning by accusing Democrats of “seeking to change Georgia law right before an election based on their political preferences” and “muddying the water and pressuring counties to ignore Georgia law.”

Although Raffensperger originally said that early voting would be offered on a Saturday, his staff later determined that it is not possible under state law. The early voting period is set for Nov. 28 through Dec. 2, a stretch that does not include a weekend day and that voting rights advocates say makes it more difficult for some people to cast ballots.

A notice sent to county officials by the secretary of state’s election director over the weekend stated that “if the second Saturday before the runoff follows a Thursday or Friday that is a state holiday, voting on that Saturday is not allowed.”

For many years, the Friday after Thanksgiving was recognized as “Robert E. Lee’s Birthday” in Georgia, even though the Confederate general’s birthday was Jan. 19. In 2015, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) supported legislation that changed the name to “State Holiday.”

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Warnock is facing a runoff against Republican Herschel Walker after neither candidate earned more than 50 percent of the vote in the general election. Georgia is one of only two states that require a tiebreaking runoff election to resolve general-election contests. (The other is Louisiana.) Both of Georgia’s 2020 Senate races went to January 2021 runoffs. Democrats swept those races, delivering the party control of the Senate.

Nearly 4.5 million people voted in the dual Senate runoffs — one of which was won by Warnock. That’s higher than the total number of people who voted in Georgia’s election last week.

During a Tuesday news conference in Atlanta, Warnock said elements of Georgia’s 2021 election law — including a shorter period between the general election and the runoff — had hurt access to the ballot. “This is not theoretical. These decisions have practical implications for ordinary, hard-working Georgia families,” Warnock said. “Not only is it wrong, it is a misinterpretation of the law.”

Walker has not publicly addressed the issue. “We’re focused on meeting the voters and winning the election,” said campaign spokesperson Will Kiley.

At issue in the dispute over Saturday voting is the text of a Georgia statute outlining when early voting is allowed in the state. The policies have been amended multiple times over the past decade, leading to conflicting interpretations.

One of the most recent changes came last year, when Georgia’s new election law shortened the period between a general election and a runoff from nine weeks to four. But it was unclear how the change would affect Saturday voting around a holiday, which had been banned in 2016.

“I think the big takeaway is that this part of the statute is drafted very poorly,” said Anthony Michael Kreis, a professor of constitutional law and legal history at Georgia State University.

“On the one hand, the secretary of state’s office is correct that the language is pretty clear about the couple-day window around a public holiday,” Kreis said. “However, this language is also placed in a section of the code that seems to be talking about a normal, three-week early-voting process, not the condensed handful of days that we have before a runoff now in Georgia.”

Vasu Abhiraman, a senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, called the decision to shrink the runoff time frame a “disaster,” arguing it restricts voters’ access to the ballot.

“Instead of inventing reasons to eliminate the few remaining options for Georgia voters to make their voices heard, the state should collaborate with counties to maximize voter access for the runoff election,” he said.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.