ATLANTA — More than 1.3 million Georgians have voted in two Senate runoffs taking place next month — a number that rivals the turnout at this point in the November election and points to intense enthusiasm in a pair of races that will determine control of Congress.
Democratic voters have an edge in the early turnout ahead of the Jan. 5 runoffs pitting Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, against the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and GOP Sen. David Perdue against challenger Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, a Washington Post analysis of Georgia voter data shows. But Republicans are closing the gap, and the current Democratic lead is slightly smaller than it was at this point in the general election.
The voter data offers little insight into which candidates may benefit from the early surge, with polls showing that the races are neck and neck. But the figures underscore the enthusiasm in both political parties. The results could determine whether President-elect Joe Biden can enact a more ambitious Democratic agenda or whether Republicans can block initiatives they oppose.
In below-freezing temperatures on a recent morning, voters in line to cast their ballots said they were eager to have a say in the high-stakes contests.
Several Democratic voters said they were energized by Biden's win and eager to see his priorities implemented with the help of a unified government, while some Republicans said they wanted to keep the incoming president in check with a GOP-controlled Senate.
"There needs to be compromise," said Cindy Davidson, 63, a Republican who voted on Friday in Cobb County, a Democratic-leaning county northwest of Atlanta. "It can't just be one way with everything, that's not good no matter which party is in control."
About 36,000 Georgians who did not vote in November cast ballots early for the January runoffs, according to state data. That includes people who were too young to vote last month.
Voters have been subject to a barrage of get-out-the-vote activity and advertising. Campaigns and independent groups have spent more than $400 million on advertisements, ad data shows.
"These are highly motivated people who want to get in and do this stuff," said Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the Georgia secretary of state's office who manages the voter information system. "We don't know if it'll stay at this level," especially with the holidays approaching.
Biden is the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in the traditionally red state since 1992. "There's a lot on the line," Sterling said. "People's emotions are raw right now. One side is elated and celebrating, and the other side is spitting nails."
Georgia Democrats said they were pleased to see the party's strong turnout in the first week of early voting.
"The turnout we've seen so far in this first week of early voting is unprecedented for a runoff election," Maggie Chambers, spokeswoman for the Georgia Democratic Party, said in a statement. "Georgia voters came out strong in November to turn Georgia blue, and we are building on that momentum as we continue reaching out to voters in every corner of the state."
After trailing Democrats in mail voting for the November election, Republicans have narrowed the gap for absentee votes in the runoffs, state data shows.
Asked for comment, Georgia Republican Party officials pointed to a recent Fox News interview with GOP strategist Karl Rove, who said the early returns of mail ballots in particular from older voters was a good sign that older Republican voters were casting ballots.
"This is a fight to the finish. Republicans are doing pretty good right now. They've got a long way to go," Rove said in the interview.
While Georgia records do not identify each voter's party affiliation, The Post used voting records in the 2020 primaries to determine the likely party affiliation of those who voted in the runoffs.
Georgia voters have traditionally preferred to vote in person rather than by mail. That changed this year with a surge in mail voting in the November elections because many people wanted to avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus at polling places.
But early-voting numbers show that more voters are casting their ballots in person than by mail compared with this point in the November election, which is more consistent with historical voter behavior in Georgia, Sterling said.
At least 1.3 million mail ballots were requested for the runoffs, including about 600,000 sent to voters who signed up to receive absentee ballots in the mail automatically for every election this cycle, state data shows.
As of Saturday morning, at least 524,000 ballots had been filled out and submitted to county elections officials - 25 percent fewer than by this point in the November election. More than 812,000 people have voted early in person - a 9% increase, data shows.
Compared with the rest of the runoff voters, the roughly 36,000 newly voting Georgians included more young voters and voters of color - groups that have tended to lean more Democratic, according to The Post's analysis.
Demographic data released by the Georgia secretary of state's office shows that the Black share of the early vote for the Jan. 5 election is slightly up, at more than 30%, compared with those who voted early in November. The age breakdown is similar to this point in the general election, with the median age of voters at 61.
Rhonda Grayned, a 71-year-old Democratic voter in Atlanta, said she decided to vote in person because she did not trust mail voting.
"I'm a Black woman, and I had to make sure I saw my vote go through," Grayned said as she voted Friday at the Buckhead Library in Atlanta, part of Fulton County. "This needs to be a blue state, so I had to walk in there and vote."
Both major political parties are making a push this week with high-profile surrogates in hopes of drumming up voters before the holidays. Independent groups also canvassed the state on Saturday, encouraging people to go to the polls before they got caught up in the holidays.
Warnock and Ossoff on Saturday held a joint rally in Savannah featuring the rapper Common, who told voters that they need to "finish the job." Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is scheduled to make two appearances in Georgia to promote turnout this week. She is expected to deliver the same message as a stream of campaign surrogates: vote early.
Vice President Mike Pence has made six trips to the state to campaign for Loeffler and Perdue, including an event in Columbus last week. And Ivanka Trump is scheduled to make several stops in Georgia this week. Republicans also have been stressing to voters that they should not fear voting absentee or on Dominion voting machines - despite baseless claims spread by President Donald Trump that mail-in votes and those cast via the Canada-based company's machines are suspect.
David Hutto, a 67-year-old medical journal editor from Atlanta, said he requested an absentee ballot but had not received it, so he decided to vote early in person instead. Like many others, Hutto said he was unsure what to expect, pointing to Biden's victory in November.
"Four months ago, the idea that Biden would take Georgia and these two senators would be in a runoff would have seemed like a miracle," he said. "You couldn't possibly expect that. A miracle has already happened in Georgia."
The runoff elections come on the heels of weeks of drama over the presidential vote in Georgia.
Biden's 11,779-vote margin of victory, out of 5 million votes cast, led to two statewide recounts, first by hand and then through a machine re-scan. Both recounts reaffirmed Biden's win, but some elections officials and temporary election workers were harassed and threatened after Trump and other Republicans made unfounded allegations of fraud.
Despite repeated efforts by state elections officials to debunk false theories and reassure the public about the integrity of the vote, state and national Republicans have continued to criticize the state's administration of the November election, filing lawsuits to change election procedures for the Jan. 5 runoffs.
In a sign of the skepticism of election administration stemming from misinformation, some voters said they were wary of the voting process, even as they showed up more than two weeks early to participate.
Ken Randall, 42, a Republican voter and engineer in Cobb County, said he was distrustful of decisions by election administrators, including the fact that the county has fewer early voting locations for the runoffs compared with the November election. County election officials said they made the decision based on the expectation of a staffing shortage.
"I'm just always trying to figure out people's ulterior motives," he said. "Anybody can tell somebody else, 'this is the reason why we're doing it,' and then behind closed doors there's always a different reason. And that's really it. You don't really know who's telling the truth and who's not."
The Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Atlanta contributed to this report.