Georgia’s shortened runoff poses hurdles for voters and officials

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ATLANTA (UKTN) — Georgia’s 2021 election law has made changes that have sparked a firestorm of criticism — a ban on giving water to people waiting to vote, a shorter period for requesting an absentee ballot and strict limits on ballot boxes.

But with in-person voting opening early Monday in most Georgia counties ahead of the June 21 primary runoff, the ramifications of another change that has received 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 tighter windows to receive and return mail-in ballots.

Opponents of the law say the shorter run-off period prevents people from voting.

“All of these things are designed to create additional barriers for Georgians to participate in our elections,” said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, which seeks to mobilize non-whites and young voters. “Individually, these are annoyances, inconveniences. Collectively, they constitute a voter suppression agenda.

Supporters of the law admit the four-week period is difficult for election officials, but say the voter suppression narrative is rubbish.

“What we’ve seen is just fewer problems and more voters across the board, regardless of party and regardless of voting method. So I think that’s really positive,” said former U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler, who now leads Greater Georgia, a group that aims to mobilize conservative voters.

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Georgia requires a runoff if a candidate does not win a majority in the party primary or general election. The new law mandates only five weekdays of in-person early voting for the ballots, beginning on Monday and ending on Friday. Voters had three weeks of early voting ahead of the May 24 primary, including two mandatory Saturdays for the first time.

The law says all 159 counties in Georgia can open in-person early voting as soon as possible, but only 10 counties started before Monday. Seven counties – Clarke, Cobb, Fulton, Glynn, Gwinnett, Lowndes and Rockdale, have scheduled Saturday’s vote. Only Fulton and Gwinnett, the two most populous counties in the state, have scheduled voting on Sunday.

Some counties decided not to vote on weekends because officials believed there would be little demand. Many Republican voters have no runoff to vote, with all statewide races settled and few local GOP races requiring another ballot.

But Ufot said it was unfair for voters to let counties set their own schedules.

“They let them each determine when they want to vote early and whether or not they want to make it easier for people?” Ufot asked.

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Of the 71,000 people who requested mail-in ballots, records show more than 13,000 were not mailed on Saturday, raising questions about whether voters would be able to receive them and return them on time.

“It’s a legitimate concern,” Loeffler said. “At the county level, I think that’s something they’re going to have to watch.”

A number of election officials say another week before the second round would improve matters.

Deidre Holden, director of elections in Paulding County, an Atlanta suburb, said her county was having trouble ordering ballots, preparing materials and finding poll workers.

“We’re struggling to make sure we meet deadlines,” Holden said. “That was something else, just trying to get the election back. … Twenty-eight days just isn’t enough.”

Of nine states that have runoff, only South Carolina, at two weeks, and Arkansas and Mississippi, at three weeks, have shorter periods.

Until 2013, runoffs in Georgia were a three-week sprint, but a federal judge found military and foreign voters didn’t have enough time to return mail-in ballots, ordering nine weeks instead .

The 2021 lawmakers addressed this problem by adding ranked ballots for foreign voters, allowing them to choose additional choices in the event of a second round.

The law’s Republican authors said they wanted a shorter period because the nine-week ballots “were exhausting for candidates, donors and voters.” The last of those contests, of course, saw Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock beat Republicans David Perdue and Loeffler in January 2021 to give Democrats control of the US Senate.

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“Having been a candidate for a nine-week runoff and having spoken to people across the state about what an extended runoff means, I don’t know many people who want to go back to an extended runoff situation,” said Loeffler. “There is voter fatigue; candidates’ resources are stretched.

Others suggest Republicans acted to ensure Democrats could never repeat that performance.

“I think, maybe, it’s a reaction to what happened in January 2021,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of voting rights at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Morales-Doyle said voter turnout could be high in Georgia, but he cautions that measuring the impact of policy changes on voter turnout “is a very complicated thing to do,” noting that high spending in gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races led to the vote on May 24. But he said shortening the runoff period is limiting.

“There is reason to believe that significantly reducing access to early voting and mail-in voting will have a negative impact on turnout,” Morales-Doyle said.

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