ATLANTA (AP) – A judge said on Friday that Georgia law allows counties to offer early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which is the only chance for Saturday voting before next month’s Senate ballot between Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker.
See: Shorter voting window could reduce turnout on Georgia runoff for US Senate
Warnock’s campaign, along with the Georgia Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, filed a lawsuit this week claiming early voting should be allowed that day. They were challenging Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s leadership that said it would be illegal to hold early voting on Saturday, Nov. 26, the day after a state holiday.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cox on Friday issued an order saying Georgia law “does not specifically prohibit counties from conducting early voting on Saturday, November 26, 2022 for a runoff election.” He also prohibited the state from interfering in efforts to hold early voting that day or prevent the counting of votes cast that day.
“We do not agree with the court order and look forward to a speedy appeal,” Raffensperger’s office said in an emailed statement.
During a hearing on Friday, Uzoma Nkwonta, an attorney for the plaintiffs, noted that both Raffensperger and one of his top deputies said on national television last week that early voting would be allowed that day. Then, Nkwonta said, the secretary of state issued guidance to counties a few days later saying it wouldn’t be allowed because the law doesn’t allow early voting the day after a state holiday. Thanksgiving and the following Friday are both public holidays.
Nkwonta argued at the hearing that the state holiday restriction only applies to primary and general elections, not runoffs. Provisions in the law requiring the state’s 159 counties to open in-person early voting “as soon as possible” for a runoff, but no later than Monday, November 28, reinforce the idea that counties may choose to offer early voting that Saturday he said.
State lawmakers have intentionally created a distinction between primary and general elections on the one hand and runoff elections on the other, Nkwonta said. That makes sense, she reasoned, due to the shortened time before a runoff.
“The legislature has provided voting opportunities that the state is now seeking to withdraw,” Nkwonta said. “This is illegal.”
Charlene McGowan, a state attorney, rejected claims that Raffensperger was handpicking parts of the law. “This is a legal issue, it’s not a policy,” she told the judge. “The problem is what does Georgia law require?”
McGowan argued that there are two types of elections in Georgia: primary elections and general elections. Ballots are a continuation of either of these two types of elections and, therefore, have no different rules for allowing early voting after a holiday.
Cox disagreed saying a runoff election “isn’t simply a continuation of a primary either [general] election, but it is actually a separate event.
Warnock and Walker were forced into a runoff on Dec. 6 because neither won a majority in this month’s midterm elections.
Under Georgia’s 2021 election law, there will be only four weeks between the general election and the runoff, with Thanksgiving in between. Many Georgians will be offered just five weekdays of in-person early voting starting November 28.
The suit claims that the state’s interpretation of the law would hurt Warnock particularly because Democrats tend to push early voting more than Republicans.
It’s unclear how many counties will rush to offer Saturday’s vote. Counties are expected to give a public notice seven days before starting early voting. But Cox prohibited the state from interfering in the counties’ efforts to provide early voting that day due to failure to provide the required notice.
Counties may also not be interested in offering Saturday voting or may not have enough time to organize and schedule pollsters. As of Thursday, only nine predominantly Democratic urban counties have scheduled Sunday voting, the Associated Press reported. Six are in the Atlanta area and the others are home to some of the other largest cities in the state.
Some counties plan to offer early voting on Tuesday and Wednesday, while others said they could not mobilize in time to offer voting in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.
From the archives (December 2021): Stacey Abrams calls for congressional voting rights action ahead of second race for governor in Georgia