Condensed runoff timeline is helping fuel Georgia's daily early voting records

Voters fill out forms as they wait in line to cast ballots in the last hour of early voting for the general election in the Atlanta suburb of Tucker, Ga., on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. Early voting for the runoff between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker began Nov. 26 and ends Dec. 2. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

About 800,000 people have voted so far in the Georgia Senate runoff. Tuesday’s turnout was the most ever on a single day of early voting — breaking a record set just the day before.

Those big daily numbers though aren’t only a sign of voters’ enthusiasm. 

Georgia’s new voting law condensed the runoff to four weeks. The law left a short window to return an absentee ballot and fewer days for early voting than during the nine-week runoff in 2021. So more people are lining up to vote early, in-person at once, especially in metro Atlanta, where wait times have been an hour or more at some early voting locations.

Brigitte Peck and her daughter Sophie waited about two hours to vote on Saturday at the Chastain Park Recreation Center in Atlanta. 

Sophie, a sophomore at Kenyon College in Ohio, requested an absentee ballot for the runoff, as she did in the November election. But her mom says the runoff ballot hadn’t arrived by the time Sophie was getting ready to go back to school after Thanksgiving break, so they lined up to vote early, in-person.

“There were college students all around us,” Brigitte Peck says. “There was a sophomore from Michigan, there with his parents, a senior from Virginia Tech behind us with his dad. All of those students saying they were there because this was the only way they were going to get to vote.”

Almost 30,000 voters have voted who did not cast ballots in the November election, according to analysis by the election data site Georgia Votes. At least 11,000 of them are ages 18-29.

State election officials and voting rights advocates say the high daily early vote numbers so far illustrate both enthusiasm and shifting voting habits, but they disagree about which is the primary driver of the records.

Gabe Sterling, with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, says voters’ willingness to wait in line demonstrates enthusiasm.

“The largest early voting day in Georgia history shows that claims of voter suppression in Georgia are conspiracy theories no more valid than Bigfoot,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wrote in a statement this week.

In the November general election, Georgia broke the record for early vote turnout during a midterm. But Vasu Abhiraman, with the ACLU of Georgia, notes that the total turnout rate dropped compared to the 2018 midterms.

Abhiraman says that even if every early vote day this week hit 300,000 ballots, like on Monday and Tuesday, Georgia would still fall below the early vote total from the 2021 runoff when three weeks of early voting was available.

This year, Georgia counties had to offer five days of mandatory early voting. Some counties also opened Saturday and Sunday voting after Thanksgiving.

“Two years ago, we had [roughly] 2.1 million early, in-person for the runoff and a million absentee,” Abhiraman says. “Those voters have to show up somewhere. And the wait times we have seen are a travesty.” 

About 230,000 voters requested an absentee ballot for the current runoff — though it’s hard to compare that figure to the 2021 runoff when the window to request and return an absentee ballot was more generous before Georgia’s new election law and COVID vaccines weren’t widely available yet. 

Absentee ballots must be received by the time polls close on Election Day, Dec. 6. 

Early voting lasts through Friday. Many counties update wait times on their local election board website. Georgia law also allows seniors 75 and up and voters with disabilities to skip the line.

Find early voting locations and hours here.