ATLANTA — The last U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia between Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin saw more than 2.1 million votes cast which was, at the time, unprecedented levels for a runoff.
Election experts estimate the 2020 dual Senate runoffs on Jan. 5 have the potential to see 4 million votes cast — nearly doubling the record set 12 years ago.
As of Dec. 30, just days before the state’s three-week early voting period closes, more than 2.5 million Georgians have made their choice between candidates — incumbents U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler up against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Even with drop-off expected and Christmas falling within the early voting period, Georgians are not taking their role lightly in deciding the future course of Congress.
"I am not surprised by these numbers, just given the stakes of Senate control would make people more interested,” Dr. Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor, told CNHI. "I think the stark contrast between the candidates and the fact that the candidates, the nonpartisan organizations and the third party have had so many resources at their disposal that a lot of those resources are actually being properly used for driving up voter turnout.”
Voter registrations activists and groups such as Stacey Abrams and the New Georgia Project have been praised for their efforts to register and mobilize voters — leading to the political shift in Georgia from red to blue that the country may have seen as a surprise, but local organizers know has been a long time in the making. But Republicans, too, have upped their ground game efforts.
“We're seeing increased activity in terms of making phone calls, sending text messages, putting people on the doors, make sure that people are reminded to vote,” Gillespie said. “These activities do increase a person's likelihood of turning out to vote. So I think we're seeing evidence of what a well-resourced, highly sophisticated field operation looks like on both sides."
But the turmoil of the November general election has left elections officials frustrated and elections workers exhausted. County elections workers are gearing up for another statewide contest which the Secretary of State’s office suspects will be met with more backlash after the outcome.
Gabriel Sterling, statewide voting implementation manager, said he expects Georgians will know the outcome of the two races by Jan. 6 — which happens to be the day Congress is set to confirm states’ electoral votes — but a margin less than .05% would give the losing candidates the opportunity to trigger a recount.
With both the outcome of the Senate runoffs and confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden coinciding, Sterling said the state anticipates a fierce backlash — no matter the outcome. But the level of criticism and spread of misinformation driven by President Donald Trump seen after the general election is something the office can’t prepare for.
“How does one prepare for that level of pushback? We're doing everything we can to stay ahead of the potential issues, but when they make up issues, how do you get ahead of something that's made up?” Sterling said. "We anticipate it, especially if the two incumbents lose, that it will just pour gasoline on the fire. The president is not helping, obviously on that front with the disinformation he has spread. But maybe both incumbents win and it all goes away. ... Our job is to count the votes and get the tallies out there and make sure the rules were followed and the legal votes are counted. That's what we're doing and we'll continue to do that.”
Before the pandemic upended the elections process, state election officials thought the implementation of the new $105 million voting system would be their biggest challenge. Then, months later, they thought it would be operating the elections amid the pandemic.
Now, Sterling said, their biggest challenge has been fighting baseless accusations coming from Trump and Georgia Republicans of widespread fraud that jeopardizes voters’ confidence in democracy.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman was at the Georgia State Capitol Tuesday in a show of support for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his staff. Wyman — a Republican — has also pushed back on the inaccurate narrative that the election was somehow “stolen” and received pushback from her party, although less intense since Washington is a Democratic-leaning state.
Wyman told CNHI she has expected a pushback against the election process for years. Now, there’s no tougher task as an election official than to “inspire public confidence in the results”
"I've got people in my state that are doing the same thing right now that are alleging — there was rampant fraud or some sort of ballot rigging — when none of it is true,” she said. “So it's been really frustrating to watch this on a national level here in Georgia where these allegations are being made when I know that county election officials and the Secretary of State's office here had to ramp up a really complex system in a short period of time.”
When the pandemic shut down the economy, elections officials in Georgia were forced to initiate a widespread absentee ballot program to keep voters safe when casting their ballots. The effort was largely successful but the outcome including the time it took to tally the absentee ballots has been used to support baseless claims of fraud.
“The constant struggle in for any elections professional is to balance access and security,” Wyman said. “The challenge Georgia and, quite frankly, most states in the country were faced with back in March and April was how are we going to completely retool our ballot delivery system?”
With the swell of mail-in ballots pouring into county elections offices, elections workers have been up against tallying votes — first accurately, but also quickly. After the initial tally of ballots in the U.S. Senate runoffs, workers face a possible audit and recount triggered by narrow margins when they’re already “run into the ground,” Sterling said.
Raffensperger and elections workers throughout the state have all faced backlash and even death threats after the general election.
“You can't replenish people's spirit right now and they're beat down,” Sterling said of election workers. “These people are honest people. And because the outcome wasn't what you wanted, they didn't suddenly become evil geniuses who are trying to steal the election from you.”
Wyman, who supports making the Secretary of State position nonpartisan, said voters need to consider context ahead of politics.
"People have to remember that usually when it's a political party or a campaign or a candidate who's making these claims, it's because they're trying to win,” she said. "It’s not that they want to make sure the election was fair or they want to make sure that only eligible voters voted or that you know that no one's vote was suppressed. Their goal as a political party, as a campaign, as a candidate is to make sure that their side wins.”