The deadline to register to vote in Georgia’s runoff elections passed on Monday, moving the state closer to in-person voting in two pivotal Senate races.
The Jan. 5 contests will determine whether two Republican incumbents, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, keep their seats. If their Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, both win, Democrats will claim control of the Senate.
It’s all up to Georgia voters now. Here’s a look at what’s next.
How many people are voting?
Some voters are already casting ballots in the runoff races — the state began mailing out absentee ballots last month. In-person early voting begins on Dec. 14, which is coincidentally the same date that members of the Electoral College will formally vote for Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Increasingly, Georgians are choosing to cast their ballots early and by mail. Nearly one million voters have already requested mail-in ballots for the runoff elections, according to state election officials, including more than 600,000 people who were eligible to receive the ballots automatically.
More than 1.3 million voters cast absentee ballots in the November general election, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office. But more than 71,000 people who did not vote in the general election have requested mail-in ballots for the runoffs, according to state data compiled by Ryan Anderson, a data analyst in Atlanta.
So far, about 43,000 Georgians have returned their absentee ballots for the runoffs, according to the secretary of state’s office. About 1,000 of those voters did not cast ballots in the general election. Absentee ballots must be requested by Jan. 1 and must be received by Jan. 5 to count, but voters should act sooner to avoid mail delays.
Both parties are encouraging their voters to cast their ballots early. Democrats hope to maintain an advantage that helped their party beat President Trump in the November election, when Mr. Biden won nearly 400,000 more absentee ballots in the state.
Republicans are trying to narrow that gap, fearing that January weather and the surging coronavirus pandemic could keep some of their voters home on Election Day. After months of Mr. Trump’s disinformation campaign against voting by mail, his own party has begun targeting its voters in Georgia with fliers and digital ads urging them to request absentee ballots.
Not all Georgia Republicans are convinced: When Vice President Mike Pence encouraged voters to request absentee ballots at a campaign stop in the state, he was met with a smattering of boos, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
How are the parties strategizing?
Runoff races have traditionally been relatively sleepy contests, with lower turnout that has favored Republicans because of a drop-off among Democrats after the general election. (The runoffs themselves were devised by white Georgians in the 1960s to dilute the power of Black voters.)
Not this year. Already, a flotilla of high-wattage political stars has descended on the race, including former President Barack Obama and Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden is expected to campaign for the Democrats closer to Election Day.
Rates for television advertising are soaring amid a staggering influx of political spending. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on the two races before Jan. 5.
The stakes couldn’t be higher: Control of the Senate will effectively set the parameters of Mr. Biden’s first-term agenda. A Republican-led Senate would complicate his ability to staff his cabinet, pass legislation and drive his political priorities.
Both parties expect turnout to be significantly higher than in the state’s last Senate runoff election, which happened in 2008, though few analysts anticipate numbers close to the five million voters who cast ballots in last month’s general election.
Modeling the electorate isn’t easy: Never has a Georgia runoff determined the balance of power in the Senate — or been held in the midst of a pandemic.
In November, Mr. Perdue received 49.7 percent of the vote, just short of the majority he would have needed to avoid a runoff, while Mr. Ossoff had 47.9 percent, a difference of about 88,000 votes. The field was more crowded in the other Senate contest: Mr. Warnock finished with 32.9 percent of the vote and Ms. Loeffler with 25.9 percent.
Democrats see opportunity in the changing demographics of the state. A push to reach new voters, led by Stacey Abrams, prompted an estimated 800,000 residents to register to vote — a groundswell that helped power Mr. Biden’s win in Georgia.
Republicans believe that some voters who backed Mr. Biden will want to see checks on Democratic power in Washington. But their effort has been complicated by Mr. Trump’s refusal to stop litigating the previous contest.
Some Republican strategists worry that Mr. Trump’s attacks on the presidential election results will complicate their efforts to win back some of the moderate suburban voters who fled their party in November.
A fringe group of conservative voters is also encouraging Republicans to boycott the election to support Mr. Trump’s baseless claims about fraudulent vote counting, which could erode Republican margins.
How smoothly will voting go?
The Georgia State Election Board extended some emergency provisions from the November election, like keeping drop boxes in place for absentee ballots. Some of the rules were tweaked to encourage a faster count, given that the new Congress is scheduled to be sworn in on Jan. 3.
Counties are now required to begin scanning and processing ballots at least a week before the election, though they cannot begin counting or tabulating them until Election Day. Those new rules should lead to quicker results beginning on election night, although a close race will almost certainly end in recounts and litigation.
Already, some Democrats and voting rights organizations have raised concerns about access to voting and possible suppression.
Election officials in Cobb County, the third-largest county in Georgia, plan to open fewer than half of the early voting locations that were in place for the general election, reducing the number to five from 11.
Some of the locations being closed, such as the Smyrna Community Center in Smyrna, are in neighborhoods with large Black populations. Voting rights and civil rights groups sent a letter to the county elections director on Monday, pleading with her to keep all 11 sites open.