CARTERSVILLE, Ga. — Georgia voters flocked to the polls Saturday to cast their ballots in the Senate runoff, taking advantage of an extra day of voting brought about by a lawsuit filed by Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D), who is defending his seat against Republican Herschel Walker.
The secretary of state’s office reported that at least 70,000 people voted Saturday. The first Saturday of early voting for the general election drew 79,682 people, more than double the 2018 number. Early voting will continue through Friday.
Those taking advantage of Saturday voting included college students home for Thanksgiving, police officers and ambulance workers with busy schedules, lifelong voters who make it a point to always cast their ballots on the first day they are allowed, and retirees seeking an escape from holiday guests.
“We got a house full of company. This gave me a good excuse to get out for a little,” said Bill Chapel, a Walker supporter from Bartow County who said he typically votes early.
Chapel said he hopes that Saturday voting ends up helping Walker more than Warnock, who filed the lawsuit that resulted in the polls here being open a day earlier than had been planned by state elections officials. Democrats have organized more around the Saturday early vote and have promoted the option this past week more than Republicans.
A total of 27 counties conducted Saturday voting, giving greater opportunities to cast a ballot for voters who may be occupied during the week. The participating counties, which include most of the state’s major metropolitan areas and several rural counties, ensured that just over half the state’s population had the opportunity to vote on Saturday.
Although Warnock received about 35,000 more votes than Walker in the Nov. 8 general election, he did not meet the 50 percent threshold for an outright win, triggering a runoff and prolonging one of the most expensive Senate races in the midterms. A poll released last week by AARP had Warnock ahead of Walker, 51 percent to 47 percent, within the margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Warnock, a senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, won the Senate seat in a special runoff election in January 2021 and is seeking a full, six-year term. If he wins on Dec. 6, Democrats will hold 51 seats in the Senate. Republicans have sought to rally conservative voters by tying Warnock to President Biden, who is unpopular in Georgia, repeating the message that the senator “votes with Biden 96 percent of the time.”
Walker, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982 as a running back for the University of Georgia, was encouraged to run for the seat by former president Donald Trump. His candidacy has generated headlines about his past, including allegations of domestic violence and that he pressured and paid for two former girlfriends to have abortions. Walker has campaigned as a staunch opponent of abortion, saying he would support a national ban on the procedure.
Republicans have rallied around Walker, who was the only statewide GOP candidate in Georgia who did not win on election night. Gov. Brian Kemp and several GOP senators, including Ted Cruz (Tex.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), have campaigned with Walker. On Thursday, former president Barack Obama is scheduled to headline a rally for Warnock.
Initially, the Georgia secretary of state said counties would be allowed to hold Saturday voting in runoff elections, but he reversed course after deciding that a part of Georgia’s election code barring voting two days after a holiday banned Saturday voting under the new compressed timeline for a runoff election mandated by the new law.
Democrats, led by Warnock’s campaign, sued the state, arguing that the policies in question didn’t apply to runoff elections. A judge in Fulton County sided with Warnock, the state Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the case. The state’s Republican attorney general, as well as the state and national Republican parties, lost their appeals in state courts.
In a fundraising email, Walker’s campaign told supporters that the decision to allow Saturday voting “is like coming out after halftime and learning the referees have changed the rules for the rest of the game.”
Then, the decision of whether to hold Saturday voting fell to the counties. In Bartow County, located northwest of Atlanta, the board of elections decided to do so at a single polling location in Cartersville. Walker won the county by 50 points earlier this month.
Peggy Brown, a Democratic member of the Bartow Board of Elections, noted the irony that the two Democrats and one independent on the five-seat board pushed for Saturday voting in the deep-red county while the two Republicans on the board voted against it.
“They didn’t think it was worth the money to do it and that there would not be a very good turnout, but I think we’re gonna prove them wrong,” said Brown, as a steady line of voters — both Republicans and Democrats — circled through the polling location at the municipal building.
The additional day of voting cost $1,100, said Brown, and the board was uncertain at first whether they’d have enough workers, given holiday travel and people hosting guests from out of town.
All counties in Georgia are required by the state’s 2021 election law to hold early voting from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the weekdays before a runoff election. Several counties, including many of the state’s most populous, had planned on holding Sunday voting on the weekend before required early voting begins and passed trigger policies to fund Saturday voting if it was found to be legal.
The public debate and litigation over Saturday voting is the latest clash over the state’s election laws, which were overhauled by a controversial 2021 voting law that had a significant effect on policies concerning absentee ballots, runoff elections, early voting and election administrative policy. The 2022 midterms are the first test of the Election Integrity Act, also known as SB 202. How the law interacts with other parts of Georgia’s election code has led to confusion.
Some voters said they didn’t want to take any chances by waiting until Election Day to cast their ballot.
“If there are any glitches or anything like that on that day, then you’re kind of, you know, screwed,” said Douglas Edwards, a dentist from Cartersville supporting Warnock. “Today if there’s something, we could always come back on Tuesday.”
A number of students cited concerns over their absentee ballots and the ease of Saturday voting while they are home for Thanksgiving.
“I am currently doing an internship out of state, and I didn’t receive my absentee ballot in time to vote for the midterms, which I was quite upset about,” said Katie Poe, a master’s degree student. “I’m in town for the holidays, and voting this Saturday is my only chance to actually vote in person, and maybe vote at all reliably.”
“I’ve had a lot of trouble in the past with absentee voting. It’s kind of disheartening to only be able to vote when I’m here, because it’s so important to me, ” she added.
“I’m a college student in school in Boston, and this is pretty much my only opportunity to vote in person. So I had to get out and vote. It’s a long line, but we’re waiting as best we can,” said Catherine McBride, a college senior from Cobb County.
McBride said she voted absentee in the general election but had to wait two or three weeks for her ballot and was concerned it wouldn’t arrive. So she decided to vote in person Saturday at the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration polling location in Marietta.
Kavita Kar, a first-year student at Stanford University from Marietta, cited similar fears around absentee voting.
“I’m going back to college tomorrow,” Kar said of her decision to vote on Saturday. “For the last election, a lot of my friends didn’t receive their ballots from Cobb County on time.”
Several hundred voters waited in line to vote at the Cobb location on Saturday afternoon, waiting about two hours to cast their ballots. Warnock won Cobb County by 16 points.
Although a Democratic-led effort, Republicans and Democrats alike praised Saturday voting for making it easier to vote around work and travel plans.
“It’s hard to get off during the week when you’re moving dirt,” said Kevin Tomlin, a Republican and heavy-equipment operator from Bartow County.
“With my work schedule, we always vote early,” said Bill Stahl, a police officer from Taylorsville supporting Walker. “It gives everybody a chance to get out. It’s not going to help one particular party.”
“I work for an ambulance company and I do 12-hour days, and this election was really important,” said Delores Flanagan, a Warnock supporter. “So I knew that I wanted to vote at the first opportunity.”
“I normally do absentee voting. But the last time I attempted to do that, it took forever to actually get the ballot, and I was concerned that I might not be able to vote,” Flanagan said of her willingness to wait in the two-hour line in Cobb County.
Sandi Griffin, a Walker supporter from Aragon, noted that it was “kind of strange” that each county got to decide if it would do early voting. “And so it was kind of hard to keep track of when ours was gonna open up,” she said.
Griffin said she and her husband had made travel plans before the runoff was called, so they welcomed the ability to vote on Saturday. “We’re leaving town, we needed to vote on early voting today and I’m glad they opened it up finally.”
Still, Griffin, a Republican, said she is concerned that the extra day will help Democrats.
“I’m afraid it will. It is a fear, and Sunday also, because then they can bus the church people,” she said.
Voters who spoke with The Washington Post said they’re used to the long lines, and having to return to the polls for a runoff — with Saturday voting just another chance to participate in the seemingly never-ending election season.
“We’ll do it again and again and again,” said Robert Schofer, a Warnock supporter from Kennesaw. “And again.”
Matt Brown contributed to this report.