Shortened Georgia runoff poses hurdles for voters, officials
Georgia's 2021 voting law made changes that drew a firestorm of criticism — bans on giving water to people waiting to vote, a shorter period to request an absentee ballot and strict limits on ballot drop boxes.
But with early in-person voting opening Monday in most Georgia counties ahead of the June 21 primary runoff, the consequences of another change that got less attention are becoming fully apparent. Shortening the runoff period from nine weeks to four weeks means less time to vote early in person and tight windows to receive and return mail ballots.
Opponents of the law say the shorter runoff period keeps people from voting.
"All of these things are designed to construct additional hurdles to Georgians participating in our elections," said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, which seeks to mobilize nonwhite and young voters. "Individually, they are annoyances, inconveniences. Collectively, they make up a voter suppression scheme."
Supporters of the law admit the four-week period is challenging for election officials, but say the voter suppression narrative is hogwash.
"What we've seen is just fewer issues and more voters turning out across the board, regardless of party, and regardless of method of voting. So I think it's a real positive," said former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who now leads Greater Georgia, a group which aims to mobilize conservative voters.
Georgia requires a runoff if a candidate doesn't win a majority in the party primary or in the general election. The new law mandates only five weekdays of early in-person voting for runoffs, beginning Monday and ending Friday. Voters got three weeks of early voting before the May 24 primary, including two mandatory Saturdays for the first time.
The law says Georgia's 159 counties can open early in-person runoff voting as soon as possible, but only 10 counties started before Monday. Seven counties — Clarke, Cobb, Fulton, Glynn, Gwinnett, Lowndes and Rockdale, provided Saturday voting. Only Fulton and Gwinnett, the state's two most populous counties, provided Sunday voting.
Some counties decided against weekend voting because officials believed there would be little demand. Many Republican voters have no runoff to vote in, with all statewide races settled and few local GOP races requiring another round of voting.
But Ufot said it's unfair to voters to let counties set their own schedules.
"They let them each determine when they want to do early voting and whether or not they want to make it easier for people?" Ufot asked.
Of the 71,000 people who requested absentee ballots by mail, records show more than 13,000 hadn't been mailed by Saturday, raising questions about whether voters could receive and return them in time.
"That's a legitimate concern," Loeffler said. "At the county level, I think that's something that they're going to have to be watching."
A number of election officials say another week before the runoff would improve things.
Deidre Holden, elections director in Atlanta's suburban Paulding County, said her county has struggled to order ballots, prepare equipment and find poll workers.
"We are having trouble making sure we're meeting deadlines," Holden said. "It's been something else, just trying to get the election turned back around. ... Twenty-eight days is just not enough."
Of nine states that conduct runoffs, only South Carolina, at two weeks, and Arkansas and Mississippi, at three weeks, have shorter periods.
Until 2013, Georgia runoffs were a three-week sprint, but a federal judge found military and overseas voters didn't have enough time to return mail ballots, ordering nine weeks instead.
Lawmakers in 2021 solved that problem by adding ranked-choice ballots for overseas voters, letting them pick additional choices in the event of a runoff.
The law's Republican authors said they wanted a shorter period because nine-week runoffs "were exhausting for candidates, donors and electors." The last of those contests, of course, saw Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock defeat Republicans David Perdue and Loeffler in January 2021 to give Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.
"Having been a candidate in a nine-week runoff and talking to people across the state about what a protracted runoff means, I don't know a lot of people that want to go back to a protracted runoff situation," Loeffler said. "There's voter fatigue; candidate resources get strained."
Others suggest Republicans acted to make sure Democrats could never repeat that performance.
"I do think, maybe, that this is a backlash against what happened in January 2021," said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director for voting rights at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Morales-Doyle said turnout may be high in Georgia, but he cautions that measuring the impact of policy changes on turnout "is a very complicated thing to do," noting high spending in governor and U.S. Senate races drove voting on May 24. But he said shortening the runoff period is limiting.
"There's reason to think that cutting down severely on access to early voting and voting by mail is going to have a negative impact on turnout," Morales-Doyle said.