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Georgia appeals court clears way for early voting in high-stakes Senate runoff election

Herschel Walker, left, and Sen. Raphael Warnock
Herschel Walker and Sen. Raphael Warnock. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Todd Kirkland/AP, John Bazemore/AP)

On Monday, the Georgia Court of Appeals handed Democrats a big win, letting stand a lower court ruling that will allow early voting to be held this weekend ahead of the Dec. 6 Senate runoff election between incumbent Democrat Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker.

On Friday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cox had sided with arguments made by lawyers for Warnock that voters be allowed to cast votes on Saturday, Nov. 26, despite a state law that prohibits early voting if there is a “public or legal holiday” on the Thursday or Friday before the day in question. Thursday is Thanksgiving, and Friday is a state holiday that formerly commemorated the life of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“The Court finds that the absence of the Saturday vote will irreparably harm the Plaintiffs, their members, and constituents, and their preferred runoff candidate,” Cox wrote in his opinion.

In response, Georgia officials appealed the ruling, asking the state to stay the decision and prevent counties from offering early voting on Saturday. The Georgia Republican Party, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee also signed on to the legal challenge.

Judge Thomas Cox.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cox. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

In a 26-page court filing, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr argued that Cox’s order “fundamentally misses the mark.”

“It erroneously concluded that the Holiday-Weekend Clause applies only to a ‘primary’ or an ‘election,’ and not a ‘runoff,’ which cannot exist outside of a primary or election,” Carr wrote. “Thus, the Superior Court’s interpretation fundamentally misses the mark by ignoring that the Senate runoff election is an ‘election’ as that term is defined and used in the Election Code and the Georgia Constitution.”

But on Monday, the appeals court sided with Warnock’s lawyers and let the lower court ruling stand.

Democrats in Georgia have been fighting against S.B. 202, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law in 2021, enshrining new voting restrictions such as the Saturday voting clause and a reduction in the amount of time allowed for early voting in a runoff election. In their lawsuit, Warnock’s lawyers, who were joined by the Georgia Democratic Party and the campaign arm of the party’s national Senate campaign, argued that the early voting provision regarding state holidays did not apply to runoff elections.

People wait in line for early voting
People wait in line for early voting for the midterm elections at a polling site in Atlanta, Nov. 4. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

In the midterm election, Warnock and Walker each failed to reach the required 50% majority threshold for a candidate to be declared the winner. According to a recent AARP poll that surveyed Georgians days after the election, Warnock holds a slight edge over Walker, 51%-47%. The poll’s margin of error is 4.4 percentage points.

During the 2021 runoff elections in Georgia between incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff and between GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Warnock, Democrats flipped both seats blue thanks to increased voter turnout, especially in minority communities in the state. The recent AARP poll shows Warnock leading Walker among Black voters by a margin of 88% to 7%.

Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock
Democratic candidates for Senate Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock at a rally in Atlanta, Jan. 4, 2021.(Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

While the midterm elections have already secured a Senate majority for the Democrats, the Georgia runoff remains hotly contested. It will determine whether the chamber will remain evenly split or if Democrats will have a one-seat cushion. A 51-49 Senate makeup would give Democrats breathing room to try to push President Biden’s agenda forward, including the ability to confirm more executive, judicial and Supreme Court nominees.

In an interview last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said a 50-50 Senate “slows everything down,” adding, “It makes a big difference to us.”

In the wake of the ruling from the appeals court, it’s not clear how many counties will open their polling places for voting on Saturday. Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, has added Saturday early voting to its schedule, but the decision will be left to officials in each county.