Georgia’s abbreviated runoff poses hurdles for voters and officials

Georgia’s 2021 election law made changes that drew a firestorm of criticism — bans on giving water to those waiting for the election, a shorter deadline for applying for postal voting and severe restrictions on ballot boxes.

But with the opening of early in-person voting Monday in most Georgia counties ahead of the June 21 runoff, the implications of another change that has garnered less attention are becoming clear. Reducing the runoff period from nine weeks to four weeks means less time to vote early in person and narrow windows for receiving and returning absentee ballots.

Opponents of the law say the shorter deadline discourages people from voting.

“All of these things are designed to create additional barriers for Georgians to participate in our elections,” said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, which is trying to mobilize non-white and young voters. “Individually, they are nuisances, inconveniences.

Supporters of the law admit the four-week deadline poses a challenge for election officials, but say the voter-suppression narrative is bogus.

“What we’ve seen is just fewer problems and more voters getting involved across the board, regardless of party and regardless of voting method. So I think that’s really positive,” said former US Senator Kelly Loeffler, who now leads Greater Georgia, a group aimed at mobilizing conservative voters.

Georgia requires a run-off election if a candidate fails to win a majority in the party’s primary or general election. The new law mandates just five days of the week for early in-person voting for runoff elections, beginning on Monday and ending on Friday. Voters could vote three weeks ahead of the May 24 primary, including two mandatory Saturdays for the first time.

The law says Georgia’s 159 districts can open early in-person runoff elections as soon as possible, but only 10 districts started before Monday. Seven counties – Clarke, Cobb, Fulton, Glynn, Gwinnett, Lowndes and Rockdale – voted on Saturday. Only Fulton and Gwinnett, the state’s two most populous counties, offered Sunday voting.

Some counties opted not to vote over the weekend because officials believed there would be little demand. Many Republican voters do not have a runoff as all statewide races are decided and few local GOP races require another round of voting.

But Ufot said it was unfair to voters to let districts set their own schedules.

“You let them decide when they want to vote early and whether they want to make it easier for people or not?” asked Ufot.

Of the 71,000 people who applied for absentee ballots by mail, records show more than 13,000 had not been mailed as of Saturday, raising questions about whether voters will be able to receive and mail them back in time.

“That’s a legitimate concern,” Loeffler said. “At the county level, I think they need to watch that.”

A number of election officials say another week before the runoff would improve things.

Deidre Holden, director of elections in Atlanta’s Paulding County suburb, said her county is having trouble ordering ballots, preparing equipment and finding poll workers.

“We’re having trouble making sure we meet deadlines,” Holden said. “It was different just trying to reverse the election. … Twenty-eight days just isn’t enough.”

Of nine states that conduct runoff elections, only South Carolina, at two weeks, and Arkansas and Mississippi, at three weeks, have shorter periods.

Until 2013, Georgia’s runoff was a three-week sprint, but a federal judge found that military and foreign voters did not have enough time to mail ballots back and ordered nine weeks instead.

Legislature in 2021 solved this problem by adding ranked ballots for foreign voters, allowing them to select additional choices in the event of a runoff.

The Republican authors of the law said they wanted a shorter deadline because nine-week runoffs “were exhausting for candidates, donors and voters.” Of course, in the last of those contests, in January 2021, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock defeated Republicans David Perdue and Loeffler to give Democrats control of the US Senate.

“Having been a candidate in a nine-week runoff and speaking to people across the state about what a protracted runoff means, I don’t know many people who would want to go back to a protracted runoff,” Loeffler said. “There is voter fatigue; candidate resources are being strained.”

Others suggest Republicans acted to ensure Democrats could never repeat that feat.

“I think maybe this is a backlash to what happened in January 2021,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of voting rights at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Morales-Doyle said voter turnout in Georgia may be high, but he warns that measuring the impact of policy changes on turnout “is a very complicated thing,” noting that high spending in gubernatorial elections and presidential elections of the US Senate drove the May 24 vote. But he said reducing expiry time is limiting.

“There is reason to believe that severely restricting access to early voting and postal voting will have a negative impact on voter turnout,” Morales-Doyle said.