Losing Another Runoff, Georgia Republicans Weigh an Election Shake-Up

As Georgia Democrats won their third Senate runoff election in two years, the party proved it had crafted an effective strategy for triumphing in a decades-old system created to sustain segregationist power and for overcoming an array of efforts to making voting more difficult. Republicans, meanwhile, were quietly cursing the runoff system, or at least their strategy for winning under a state law they wrote after losing the last election.

The various post-mortems over how Georgia’s runoff rules shaped the state’s Senate outcome on Tuesday put a spotlight on a major voting law passed by the Republican-led General Assembly last year. Some Republicans acknowledged that their efforts to limit in-person early voting days might have backfired, while others encouraged lawmakers to consider additional restrictions next year.

With Georgia poised to remain a critical political battleground and with Republicans holding gerrymandered majorities in both chambers of its state legislature, some in the party said that additional election law changes were likely.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who oversees the state’s voting procedures, said in an interview on Wednesday that there would be a debate next year over potential adjustments to Georgia’s runoff laws and procedures after Senator Raphael Warnock’s victory.

Mr. Raffensperger said he would present three proposals to lawmakers. They include forcing large counties to open more early-voting locations to reduce hourslong lines like the ones that formed at many Metro Atlanta sites last week; lowering the threshold candidates must achieve to avoid a runoff to 45 percent from 50 percent; and instituting a ranked-choice instant-runoff system that would not require voters to come back to the polls again after the general election.

“The elected legislators need to have information so they can look at all the different options that they have and really see what they’re comfortable with,” Mr. Raffensperger said.

Republicans are not the only ones hoping to end Georgia’s requirement that a runoff take place if no candidate in a general election wins at least half of the vote. Democrats have long viewed the practice — a vestige of racist 1960s efforts to keep Black candidates or candidates backed by Black voters from taking office — as an additional hurdle for working-class people of color.

Park Cannon, a Democratic state representative from Atlanta who was arrested last year after knocking on the closed door behind which Gov. Brian Kemp signed the state’s voting law, said that last Friday, she had driven for 30 minutes and then waited an hour to vote early in person.

Runoffs, Ms. Cannon said, “are not to the benefit of working families.” She added, “It’s very difficult to, within four weeks of taking time off to vote, have to do that again.”

Since the law was passed in 2021, Georgia Democrats have criticized the new barriers to voting that it set in place. During the runoff, Mr. Warnock, a Democrat, spared no opportunity to highlight the law and characterize it as the latest in a decades-long push to minimize the influence of Black voters and anyone who opposed Republican control.

His stump speech featured a regular refrain reminding supporters that Georgia Republicans had sought to prohibit counties from opening for in-person early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, after the state’s Republican attorney general and Mr. Raffensperger concluded that doing so was in violation of state law. Mr. Warnock and Democrats sued, and a state judge agreed to allow for the Saturday voting.

“People showed up in record numbers within the narrow confines of the time given to them by a state legislature that saw our electoral strength the last time and went after it with surgical precision,” Mr. Warnock said in his victory speech on Tuesday night in Atlanta. “The fact that voters worked so hard to overcome the hardship put in front of them does not eliminate the fact that hardship was put there in the first place.”

Because of the new voting law, Tuesday’s runoff was held four weeks after the general election, rather than the nine-week runoff period under which Georgia’s high-profile Senate races in early 2021 unfolded. The nine-week runoff period that year had been ordered by a federal judge; runoff contests for state elections have always operated on a four-week timeline.

Tuesday’s contest also included fewer days to vote and new restrictions on absentee ballots — and it ended with virtually the same result.

The 3.5 million votes cast in Tuesday’s runoff amounted to 90 percent of the general-election turnout in the Senate race on Nov. 8. In 2021, when Mr. Warnock first won his seat, runoff turnout was 91 percent of the general-election turnout, which was higher because 2020 was a presidential year. The outpouring of voters in both years was orders of magnitude higher than in any prior Georgia runoff.

The booming turnout this year has led Georgia Republicans to insist that their voting law was not suppressive.

“We had what I think was a nearly flawless execution of two huge elections in terms of turnout and in terms of accuracy and integrity,” said Butch Miller, a Republican leader in the Georgia State Senate who helped write the voting law and is leaving the chamber after losing the primary for lieutenant governor.

Mr. Miller said he “didn’t care for” the way that some counties, including large Democratic-leaning ones in the Atlanta area, had opened for extra early voting days, a sentiment echoed by other Georgia Republicans after Mr. Warnock’s victory.

The new law evidently had an effect on how Georgians voted. In the January 2021 runoffs, 24 percent of the vote came via absentee ballots that had been mailed to voters. On Tuesday, just 5 percent of the vote came through the mail, a result of restrictions on who could receive an absentee ballot and the shortening of the runoff period, which made it more difficult to request and receive a ballot within the allotted time period.

The 2021 law also cut the amount of in-person early voting days to a minimum of five, but allowed Georgia’s counties to add more days before the state’s mandated early-voting week. The Warnock campaign pressed the state’s Democratic counties to open for early voting on the weekend after Thanksgiving, giving voters who were more likely to vote for the senator extra days to do so.

But then Mr. Raffensperger sought to enforce a state law that forbids in-person early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, leading to Mr. Warnock’s successful lawsuit.

Jason Shepherd, a former chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party, said the push to stop Saturday voting “wasn’t worth the fight” and served to energize Democratic voters.

“You can be completely right and it can send the wrong message, because it plays into the Democrats’ narrative about voter suppression,” Mr. Shepherd said on Wednesday.

In the end, 28 of Georgia’s 159 counties opened for extra in-person early voting days. Of those, 17 ended up backing Mr. Warnock and 11 went for his Republican challenger, the former football star Herschel Walker.

Compared with weekdays, when the entire state was open for in-person early voting, relatively few votes were cast on the extra voting days. Just over 167,000 votes in all were cast combined on the Saturday and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, along with the Tuesday and Wednesday before the holiday, when just two counties opened for voting. By contrast, 285,000 to 352,000 votes were cast statewide on each day of weekday early voting.

But voters who cast ballots during those extra in-person early voting days were likely to tilt heavily toward Mr. Warnock.

The largest 14 counties to back Mr. Warnock — including seven in metropolitan Atlanta — all opened for extra early voting days. Just two of the 11 largest counties to back Mr. Walker opened for extra in-person early voting days.

Maya King contributed reporting.

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