This story first appeared in Newsline sister outlet the Georgia Recorder.
A steady trickle of Georgians mostly breezed in and out of polling places across the state for the final day of voting in the state’s high-stakes U.S. Senate runoffs, adding more than 1 million votes to the already 3 million cast before Tuesday.
The nation watched as voters here narrowly elected Democrat Raphael Warnock, making him the first Black senator in Georgia history. Warnock declared victory shortly after midnight and The Associated Press called the race for him at 2 a.m. Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler has not conceded.
As of Wednesday morning, Warnock held about a 53,000-vote lead over Loeffler.
But the rest of the country will have to wait a little longer to learn which political party will control the Senate after a nine-week campaign that broke spending records, attracted many of the country’s top political stars to what was once a reliably red state, and played out during a worsening pandemic.
Democrats would need to flip both seats for Republicans to lose their majority status in the Senate and for incoming Vice President Kamala Harris to gain the tie-breaking vote in the chamber.
As of Wednesday morning, Democrat Jon Ossoff held a slim 16,000-vote lead over Republican Sen. David Perdue in Georgia’s other Senate runoff. Ossoff said in remarks at 8 a.m. Wednesday that he was Senate-bound, but the race has not been officially called.
“Whether you were for me or against me, I’ll be for you in the U.S. Senate,” Ossoff said Wednesday morning. “I will serve all the people of this state. I will give everything I’ve got to ensuring that Georgia’s interests are represented in the U.S. Senate.”
There is one bright spot for Republicans, though: Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, who is running for reelection in Georgia’s lower profile runoff for the state Public Service Commission, held about a 69,000-vote lead over Democrat Daniel Blackman as of Wednesday morning. McDonald is the Republican candidate with the most votes, despite being the third race down on the ballot.
State election officials, candidates, advocates and others have cautioned that it could take days for the final vote totals to be known. Military and overseas absentee ballots, for example, have until Friday to arrive at local election offices.
And the Perdue campaign said in a statement early Wednesday morning that it “will require time and transparency to be certain the results are fair and accurate and the voices of Georgians are heard.”
“We will mobilize every available resource and exhaust every legal recourse to ensure all legally cast ballots are properly counted. We believe in the end, Senator Perdue will be victorious,” his campaign said in the statement.
‘This is a blue state now’
Georgia Democrats went into the runoffs energized after the state backed a Democrat for the White House for the first time in three decades. President-elect Joe Biden won the state by just 12,000 votes in November.
“We have the chance tomorrow to prove what we did in November wasn’t a fluke. It was the future,” Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor two years ago, said Monday during Biden’s Atlanta drive-in rally.
By the time the first polls opened Tuesday, a little more than 3 million voters had already cast a ballot. That was only down about 22% from the general election when a record 5 million people voted in Georgia.
As of early Wednesday morning, 4.4 million total votes had been tallied — surpassing the total number of people who voted in the state’s gubernatorial race just two years ago.
“This is a blue state now and we have to keep it going at all costs,” said Iris Strickland, a 57-year-old Atlantan who works in logistics and who voted at a southwest Atlanta church Tuesday. Strickland said she was hopeful the election results would lead to social justice and police reforms.
‘Even though we know Trump won, we’re ready to vote’
President Donald Trump has spent the last two months casting doubt on the state’s election, and he continued to repeat baseless claims of widespread fraud at an election-eve rally held in Dalton. One of the big questions of the runoffs was whether the president’s repeated criticism of state’s election system would hurt Republican turnout.
But based on interviews with Republican voters this week, several of the president’s supporters said they felt more compelled than ever to cast a ballot in Tuesday’s runoffs.
Rebecca Young, a voter in rural Gordon County, said she doesn’t know anybody who is sitting this election out.
“They’re voting. They’re definitely voting, and all of them is Republicans,” Young, who works in the flooring industry, said as she cast her ballot at Sugar Valley First Baptist Church.
“Even though we know Trump won, we’re ready to vote. We know Trump won the race for president. It’s all in our hearts that he really won, because all that has come out about the missing votes, the missing ballots and all this, and there’s just so many people that was out there for him compared to the others.”
North Georgia counties like Gordon saw turnout that lagged the general election heading into Tuesday. But the Loeffler and Perdue campaigns sounded a cautiously optimistic note Tuesday afternoon about the voter turnout reports coming out of ruby red north Georgia.
Still, the campaigns acknowledged in a joint statement that Tuesday’s outcome could be decided by “just a few votes in a few precincts across the state.” A newly minted battleground state, Georgia has seen tightening margins in recent statewide races.
Republicans hoped Trump’s Monday rally would boost turnout for Election Day, when the bulk of conservative voters tend to show up at the polls. At his rally, the president continued to say the presidential election was “rigged,” but urged supporters to vote anyway, saying “a historic tidal wave of Republican voters” was the only way to “combat the Democrat fraud.”
Janann Langston, a voter in conservative Cherokee County, said she believes Trump’s claims of election fraud have energized voters.
“A lot of people I didn’t expect at work were voting today that typically haven’t voted before, even my husband who has never voted before, he registered to vote for this,” said Langston, who manages an embroidery shop. “We want to at least keep some semblance of control with the Senate, because if we don’t, I’m afraid everything we stand for right now is going to go away.”
Georgia Recorder reporters Ross Williams and Stanley Dunlap contributed to this report.