Early voting in Georgia starts on Oct. 15. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Early voting in Georgia starts Monday, a decisive election moment

Democrat Stacey Abrams is crisscrossing the state to rally supporters to head to the polls early. Republican Brian Kemp is hitting rural hotspots to mobilize his backers. And down-ticket candidates are scrambling to help the push.

The contenders for Georgia public offices move into a new phase in the election Monday as the early, in-person voting period begins. Over the next three weeks, throngs of voters will cast ballots at voting sites in all 159 counties each weekday as well as at least one Saturday.

If history is a guide, it could prove to be a decisive chapter in this election: More votes could be cast before Election Day than on it. Which is why the candidates for governor are not treading lightly.

For Abrams, that means an “early vote bus tour” that launches Monday in Macon and will take her to most of Georgia’s major cities and a swath of rural areas. At each stop, she’ll urge her most likely supporters – along with Georgians who rarely cast ballots – to surge to the polls.

“Georgia isn’t a red state. We’re a non-voting state. And in 2016, nearly 750,000 eligible Georgia voters stayed home,” she said. “We won’t let that happen again.”

Kemp, meanwhile, plans a return to deeply Republican agricultural centers where he hopes to run up the score. He’s recently tried to energize his supporters to fight what his campaign has called the “bias and bull” from opponents of his policies.

“They have activists who are willing to do anything to win at the ballot box,” his campaign said of Democrats in a note to supporters. “Will you commit to #TeamKemp for 25 days and help us fight back and win?”

And lower-profile contenders are working to get a sliver of the attention.

Sarah Riggs Amico, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, has her own tour of Georgia that will overlap with Abrams. And Jim Beck, the GOP candidate for insurance commissioner, tried to rev up voters by calling it “quite possibly the most important midterm election in our country’s history.”

A cliché rings true

Hyperbole aside, it is a crucial moment for each campaign.

Both candidates have consolidated their party’s bases and narrowed the race to just a handful of undecided voters, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll released last week that shows a dead heat.

Now they just need to get their supporters to vote.

“It’s a cliché, but it’s going to hinge on turnout,” said Trey Hood, the University of Georgia political scientist who conducted the poll.

“Democrats are solidly behind Abrams, and Republicans are solidly behind Kemp,” said Hood. “There’s almost no one left to persuade. So for both camps, it’s about getting their supporters to the polls.”

Both have built up their campaign operations for more than a year, and Abrams, in particular, has devoted time and treasure to developing a vast grassroots network to mobilize voters. The next three weeks will test each candidates’ ability to spring their get-out-the-vote machines into action.

This phase is increasingly important in Georgia elections. During the last midterm election four years ago, roughly 37 percent of voters filled out their ballots before Election Day. That jumped to nearly 60 percent in the 2016 presidential election.

If mailed ballots are any indication, Georgia voters are already energized. About 45,000 ballots had been mailed through Thursday – twice as many as at the same point in the 2014 midterm elections, according to state records.

Black voters account for a substantial portion of the early voting turnout so far, making up 42 percent of all absentee ballots cast, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. About 45 percent of absentee ballots were returned by white voters.

That’s a key part of Abrams’ message. For voters worried about the integrity of electronic voting machines, she reminds them of the old-fashioned paper option to mail their ballots in. Her campaign has aggressively amplified that message to younger voters on social media.

“It’s 100 percent legit,” said Sara Tindall Ghazal, the state Democratic party’s voter protection director, on one video posted on her campaign’s account. “It’s so legit that I vote from home myself, and I get to track it.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Staff Writer Mark Niesse contributed to this report.