Georgia voters went to the polls Saturday for Senate elections

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CARTERSVILLE, Ga. — Georgia voters flocked to the polls Saturday to cast their ballots in the Senate primary, taking advantage of an extra day of voting caused by a lawsuit filed by Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D), who is defending his seat against Republican Herschel Walker.

In more than two dozen counties across the state, thousands of voters from both parties turned out to vote, some waiting for hours in lines stretching around the block for the chance to cast their ballots early for the Dec. 6 vote .

The secretary of state’s office reported that at least 70,000 people voted Saturday. The first Saturday of early voting for the general election attracted 79,682 people, more than double the 2018 figure. Early voting continues through Friday.

Those who took advantage of Saturday’s polls included college students visiting home for Thanksgiving, police officers and paramedics with busy work schedules, lifelong voters who make it a point to always cast their ballots on the first day they’re allowed, and retirees , who are just looking for an escape from holidaymakers.

“We have a house full of company. This gave me a good excuse to get out for a little bit,” said Bill Chapel, a Walker supporter from Bartow County who said he typically votes early.

Chapel said he hopes Saturday’s vote ends up helping Walker more than Warnock, who filed the suit that resulted in polls here opening a day earlier than planned by state election officials. Democrats have organized more around Saturday’s early vote and have promoted the possibility in the past week more than the Republicans.

A total of 27 counties conducted Saturday voting, providing greater opportunities to cast ballots for voters who may be busy during the week. The participating counties, which include most of the state’s large metropolitan areas and several rural areas, ensured that well over half of the state’s population had the opportunity to vote on Saturday.

Although Warnock received about 35,000 more votes than Walker in the Nov. 8 general election, he fell short of the 50 percent threshold for an outright victory, triggering a runoff and prolonging one of the costliest Senate races of the midterms. A poll released last week by AARP had Warnock ahead of Walker, 51 percent to 47 percent, within a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Warnock, who won the seat in a special by-election in January 2021, is seeking a full six-year term. If he wins on December 6, Democrats will have 51 seats in the Senate.

Georgia’s secretary of state originally said counties would be allowed to hold Saturday voting in runoff elections, but reversed course after ruling that a section of Georgia’s election code that barred voting two days after a holiday prohibited Saturday voting under the new compressed timeline for a re-election. mandated by the new law.

Democrats, led by Warnock’s campaign, sued the state, arguing that the policies in question did not apply to runoff elections. A Fulton County judge sided with Warnock, the state Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the case. The state’s Republican attorney general, as well as the state and national Republican parties, lost their appeals in state courts.

In a fundraising email, Walker’s campaign told supporters that the decision to allow Saturday’s vote “is like coming out after halftime and learning that the umpires have changed the rules for the rest of the game.”

After that, the decision on whether to hold a Saturday vote fell to the counties. In Bartow County, located northwest of Atlanta, the Board of Elections decided to do so at a single polling place in Cartersville. Walker won the county by 50 points earlier this month.

Peggy Brown, a Democratic member of the Bartow Board of Elections, noted the irony that the two Democrats and one independent on the five-seat board pushed for the Saturday vote in the deep red county, while the two Republicans on the board voted against.

“They didn’t think it was worth the money to do it and that there wouldn’t be a very good turnout, but I think we’re going to prove them wrong,” said Brown, as a steady line of voters — both Republicans and Democrats — circled through the polling place at the municipal building.

The extra voting day cost $1,100, Brown said, and the board was initially unsure if they would have enough workers, given holiday travel and people hosting out-of-town guests.

All counties in Georgia are required by the state’s 2021 election law to hold early voting from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays before a by-election. Several counties, including many of the state’s most populous, had planned to hold Sunday voting the weekend before required early voting begins and adopted trigger policies to fund Saturday voting if it turned out to be legal.

The public debate and litigation over Saturday voting is the latest clash over the state’s election laws, which were overhauled by a controversial 2021 voting law that had a significant effect on absentee ballot, runoff, early voting and election administration policies. The 2022 midterms are the first test of the Election Integrity Act, also known as SB 202. How the law interacts with other parts of Georgia’s election code has led to confusion as the law was put into practice.

Some voters said they didn’t want to take any chances by waiting until Election Day to cast their ballots.

“If there’s any mistakes or anything like that that day, you’re kind of screwed, you know,” said Douglas Edwards, a Cartersville dentist who supports Warnock. “Today, if there’s anything, we can always come back on Tuesday.”

A number of students cited concerns about their absentee ballots and the ease of Saturday voting consistent with being home for Thanksgiving.

“I’m currently interning out of state and I didn’t receive my absentee ballot in time to vote in the midterm elections, which I was pretty upset about,” said Katie Poe, a master’s student. “I’m in town for the holidays and voting this Saturday is my only chance to actually vote in person and maybe vote reliably at all.”

“I’ve had a lot of problems with absentee voting in the past. It’s a bit disheartening to only be able to vote when I’m here because it’s so important to me,” she added.

“I’m a college student in school in Boston and this is pretty much my only opportunity to vote in person. So I had to get out and vote, it’s a long line but we’re waiting as best we can,” said Catherine McBride, a college senior from Cobb County, visiting home for Thanksgiving.

McBride said she voted absentee earlier this month in the general election but had to wait two or three weeks for her ballot and was worried it wouldn’t reach her in time for the general. So she decided to vote in person Saturday at the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration polling place in Marietta.

Kavita Kar, a Stanford University freshman from Marietta who voted at the same location, cited similar fears about absentee voting.

“I’m going back to college tomorrow,” Kar said of his decision to vote on Saturday. “For the last election, many of my friends did not receive their ballots from Cobb County on time.”

Several hundred voters waited in line to vote at the Cobb location Saturday afternoon, waiting about two hours to cast their ballots. Warnock won Cobb County by 16 points.

Although it was a Democratic-led effort, both Republicans and Democrats praised Saturday’s vote for making it easier to vote around work and travel plans.

“It’s hard to get off during the week when you’re moving dirt,” said Kevin Tomlin, a Republican and heavy equipment operator from Bartow County.

“With my schedule, we always vote early,” said Bill Stahl, a Taylorsville police officer who supports Walker. “It gives everybody a chance to get out. It’s not going to help one particular party.”

“I work for an ambulance company and I do 12 hour days and this election was really important,” said Delores Flanagan, a Warnock supporter. “So I knew I would vote at the first opportunity.”

“I usually vote absentee. But the last time I tried to do that, it took forever to get the ballot and I was worried I might not be able to vote,” Flanagan said of her willingness to wait the two hours long. line to vote in Cobb County.

Sandi Griffin, a Walker supporter from Aragon, noted that it was “kind of weird” that each county had to decide whether to conduct early voting. And so it was a bit difficult to keep track of when ours was going to open up,” she said.

Griffin said she and her husband had made travel plans before the runoff was called, so they welcomed the opportunity to vote on Saturday. “We’re leaving town, we had to vote on early voting today and I’m glad they finally opened it up.”

Still, Griffin, a Republican, said she worries the extra day will help Democrats.

“I’m afraid that it will happen. It’s a fear, and on Sunday too, because then they can bus the church people,” she said.

Voters who spoke to The Washington Post said they are used to the long lines and need to return to the polls to cast a ballot — with Saturday’s vote just another chance to participate in the seemingly never-ending election season.

“We’re going to do it again and again and again,” said Robert Schofer, a Warnock supporter from Kennesaw. “And again.”

Matt Brown contributed to this report.

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