In-person early voting began Monday in Georgia for the crucial Jan. 5 special election that will decide control of the Senate.
Polling locations opened Monday morning as more than 1.2 million Georgians had already requested absentee ballots and more than 200,000 voters had returned their mail ballots, according to data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project.
With approaching holidays and a compressed election timeline, the in-person early voting period will be key for campaigns hoping to turnout voters.
In-person early votes made up more than half of the nearly 5 million ballots cast in the Nov. 3 general election, a record-high total for the state.
Runoff elections typically see a drop in voter participation compared with general elections, but the high stakes of the January races are expected to prompt a fierce battle at the ballot box.
Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler face competitive challenges from Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively. Georgia election rules called for runoff races when no candidate exceeded 50% of voter share in either race during the Nov. 3 general election.
As of now, Republicans will hold a 50-48 majority in the Senate come January. If Democrats win both Georgia races, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would be the tiebreaking vote, giving the party unified control of the White House and Congress. If Republicans keep just one seat, the GOP retains control of the Senate.
“It is as urgent as ever,” Warnock said following a drive-in rally in Warner Robbins on Sunday. “And so we need everybody to turn out and vote.”
“Everything’s at stake in this election,” Loeffler said after an event at the Houston County GOP offices Sunday. “It’s the future of the country.”
Georgia has not elected a Democratic senator since 1996 and Democrats have not won a statewide runoff election in Georgia since 1988. But Democrats are hoping the diverse coalition that helped elect Joe Biden could also propel their Senate candidates to victory.
The first day of in-person early voting coincides with the meeting of the Electoral College, as Georgia electors record their votes for Biden, the first Democrat to win Georgia’s presidential race since 1992.
Biden is set to travel to Atlanta on Tuesday to campaign for Ossoff and Warnock, the president-elect’s first campaign appearance since winning the November election.
Former President Barack Obama headlined a virtual rally with Ossoff and Warnock on Dec. 4, emphasizing the importance of the runoffs for Biden’s domestic agenda.
“If you don’t have a majority, if the Senate is controlled by Republicans who are interested in obstruction and gridlock rather than progress and helping people, they can block just about anything,” Obama said.
The GOP has sent several high-profile surrogates to Georgia, including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump has made Georgia a focal point of his baseless claims that widespread voter fraud cost him the election. The president has attacked prominent Republican leaders in Georgia such as Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for refusing to overturn the election results even as two full recounts reaffirmed Biden’s victory.
“What a fool Governor @BrianKempGA of Georgia is. Could have been so easy, but now we have to do it the hard way,” Trump said on Twitter early Monday morning. “Demand this clown call a Special Session and open up signature verification, NOW. Otherwise, could be a bad day for two GREAT Senators on January 5th.”
The president’s repeated attacks on election integrity could have undermining effects on efforts to mobilize Republican voters for the Jan. 5 runoffs.
Meanwhile, Democrats are focused on turning out new voters, including eligible Georgians who were not old enough to vote in the November election but will turn 18 by Jan. 5. Nearly 90,000 mail ballots have been requested by residents who did not vote in the general election, according to U.S. Elections Project data.
“These are people who did not vote in the general election,” former Democratic Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams told NBC affiliate 11Alive Sunday. “That means there’s enthusiasm, but there’s also a hunger for action.”