ATLANTA — A failed Republican effort to cut off a single day of early voting before Georgia’s runoff — on Nov. 26 — not only gave Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock a key message to hammer in his stump speeches, but it may have also helped him build up the margin he needed to win a full term in the Senate.
Warnock’s narrow win on Tuesday over college football star Herschel Walker, which made him the first Black Georgia senator elected to a six-year term, marked a victory for Democrats in tough political territory. It has also spurred a fresh reckoning among national Republicans over their party’s aversion, fueled by former president Donald Trump, to early voting and calls from at least some in the Georgia GOP for new changes to the way the state conducts its runoff elections.
But a fight over one day of early voting, which the Warnock campaign successfully sued to make possible, exemplifies the way Democrats disproportionately benefited from an issue on which Republicans are openly admitting their party has miscalculated.
“When it comes to that very unique Saturday situation, the Democrats may have gotten a boost out of it, they may have mobilized their voters, they may have finally found the boogeyman they were looking for,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in Georgia who broadly lamented the way Republicans in the state ceded their historic absentee voting advantage to Democrats.
“Republicans have to make sure they use every opportunity to access the ballot box,” he added.
The issue began with Georgia’s requirement that each county not only offer five days of early, in-person voting the week before the Dec. 6 election, but also permitted counties to offer some extra days of early voting if they wanted them.
But on Nov. 12, the state’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, blocked counties from offering an extra day on Saturday, Nov. 26, two days after Thanksgiving, saying Georgia law barred early voting on Saturdays right after state holidays.
Georgia is a place where partisan fights over voting rules, including Republican efforts to limit Sunday voting, have been at a rolling boil for years. Raffensperger’s position brought immediate pushback from Warnock, who — along with Democratic groups — filed a lawsuit challenging the decision and made the dispute a critical part of his stump speech. Voting rights activists quickly lined up behind him.
“It created a backlash, a reaction like, ‘You don’t want us to vote?’ ” said LaTosha Brown, cofounder of a voter mobilization group called Black Voters Matter, which had a raft of programming planned for that weekend. “The Saturday vote, it was almost like the firing rod, it was the catalyst, I think, that literally set off the momentum for early voting.”
After a judge ruled in Warnock’s favor, the state appealed and lost, and then state GOP and national Republicans appealed the matter to the state Supreme Court, which also sided with Warnock just before Thanksgiving.
The victory in the court had the added political benefit of allowing Warnock to depict himself as an effective champion of voting rights in real time, an unintended GOP-financed gift in a runoff already shortened from nine to four weeks by a Republican-backed law passed last year.
“Reverend Warnock often says a vote is a kind of prayer and in fighting to ensure as many voters as possible would have an opportunity to vote on the Saturday after Thanksgiving he reinforced exactly why Georgians elected him to the US Senate in the first place,” Quentin Fulks, Warnock’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “In the process, Republicans showed their hand and we gained momentum in the critical final stage of the runoff.”
And, in a twist that likely further boosted their campaign, their win in court did not affect all Georgia voters equally, since it was still up to the counties to decide whether or not they would open the polls that Saturday. Populous and Democratic-leaning counties responded in force, while fewer red counties offered early voting — meaning that ultimately that day, more people living in counties inclined to support Warnock got access to early voting than in counties supporting Walker.
Of the 27 counties listed as offering early voting on Nov. 26, 17 ultimately ended up backing Warnock, a Globe analysis found. Those include the state’s four most populous counties, which are home to 3.5 million people alone. Ten counties that offered early voting that day, representing far fewer people, went on to back Walker. The state has 159 counties in all.
“The unequal access to voting for Republicans in Republican areas is problematic,” said Jason Shepherd, the former chair of the Cobb County Republicans, who is frustrated that his party did not do more overall to urge their supporters to vote early or via absentee ballots.
“Part of it was Donald Trump, the narrative from Donald Trump, vote on Election Day, don’t trust early voting,” Shepherd said. “I think it’s a huge mistake.”
Early voting was hardly a political flashpoint until Trump made it a focus of his self-serving political theories, claiming falsely in 2020 that mail-in voting was ripe for fraud and casting aspersions on early in-person voting, too.
Nationally, Republicans have lost numerous key races since doubts about the election system became part of their political orthodoxy. Trump’s claims about election fraud during the 2021 runoff period are believed to have depressed Republican turnout in the 2021 runoffs here, costing the GOP two Senate seats.
The losses have led some Republican leaders –– albeit cautiously –– to call for an end to the effort to delegitimize early and mail-in voting. “There were many in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early.’ And we have to stop that,” said the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, during an interview on Fox News on Tuesday. (Her spokesman later told NBC News that she was not talking specifically about Trump.)
In Georgia, the fight over Saturday voting was plainly inconvenient for Republicans who have spent years disputing Democratic accusations that they are trying to suppress the votes of minorities and young voters by passing new voting limitations — and some Republicans have since moved to distance themselves from the fight.
“Fighting that fight, we could have been doing other things,” Governor Brian Kemp, the state’s most prominent Republican, said on CNN last week.
Raffensperger’s office has maintained that he was simply bound to enforce the existing laws around holidays and voting. Thanksgiving is a federal holiday, and in Georgia, the day after is a state holiday with no name that used to honor the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Raffensperger now says state lawmakers need to “revisit the runoff process.”
Kendra Cotton, the CEO of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, said that since Warnock’s overall margin was less than 100,000 votes, the 70,000 voters who cast ballots that day — including Cotton and her college-aged daughter — were crucial. “That weekend alone might have been the difference maker,” Cotton said, “and they knew that.”