ATLANTA (AP) — A judge said Friday that Georgia law allows counties to offer an early vote on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which is the only option for a Saturday vote before next month’s Senate runoff between Democrat Sen Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker.
Warnock’s campaign, along with the Democratic Party of Georgia and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, filed a lawsuit this week arguing that early voting should be allowed that day. They questioned the guidelines of Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who said it was illegal to hold early voting on Saturday, Nov. 26, the day after a state holiday.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cox issued an order Friday saying Georgia law “does not specifically prohibit counties from voting early for a runoff election on Saturday, November 26, 2022 to carry out”. He also forbade the state from interfering with efforts to get early voting that day or prevent votes cast that day from being counted.
“We disagree with the court’s order and look forward to an immediate appeal,” Raffensperger’s office said in an emailed statement.
During a hearing earlier Friday, Uzoma Nkwonta, an attorney for the plaintiffs, noted that both Raffensperger and one of his top deputies said on national television last week that early voting was permitted that day. Then, Nkwonta said, the foreign secretary issued guidance to counties days later, saying it was not allowed because the law does not allow early voting the day after a state holiday. Thanksgiving and the following Friday are both national holidays.
Nkwonta argued at the hearing that the state holiday restriction applies only to primary and general elections, not runoff elections. Provisions in the law directing the state’s 159 counties to open early in-person voting for a runoff “as soon as possible,” and no later than Monday, Nov. 28, reinforce the idea that counties will hold a runoff this Saturday may offer early voting, he said.
State legislatures have deliberately created a distinction between primary and general elections on the one hand and runoff elections on the other, Nkwonta said. That makes sense, he argued, because of the compressed amount of time before a drain.
“The legislature created choices that the state is now trying to withdraw,” Nkwonta said. “This is illegal.”
Charlene McGowan, a state attorney, has dismissed claims that Raffensperger picked parts of the law.
“This is a legal issue, not a political one,” she told the judge. “The question is what does Georgian law dictate?”
McGowan argued that there are two types of elections in Georgia: primary and general election. Runoff elections are a continuation of either of these two types of elections and thus have no different rules for early voting after a holiday.
Cox disagreed, saying that a runoff “is not just a continuation of a primary or (general) election, but is actually an event in its own right.”
Warnock and Walker were forced into a December 6 run-off because neither won a majority in that month’s midterm election.
Under Georgia’s 2021 election law, there will be just four weeks between the general election and the runoff – with Thanksgiving in the middle. Many Georgians will be offered early in-person voting for just five days a week starting November 28.
The lawsuit says the state’s interpretation of the law would be particularly damaging to Warnock because Democrats tend to push earlier votes more than Republicans do.
It’s not clear how many counties will seek to offer voting on Saturday. Districts are scheduled to publicly announce seven days before the early voting begins. But Cox barred the state from interfering with counties’ efforts to allow an early vote that day because the required notification had not been given.
Counties may also not be interested in offering Saturday voting, or may not have enough time to organize and schedule poll workers. As of Thursday, only nine mostly Democratic metropolitan counties planned to vote Sunday, according to Associated Press reports. Six are in the Atlanta area and the others are home to some of the state’s other major cities.
Some counties plan to offer early voting Tuesday and Wednesday, while others said they could not mobilize in time to offer voting those days leading up to Thanksgiving.