What does an early voting surge mean for Georgia’s 6th District?

Voters in Georgia's 6th Congressional District aren't waiting for the June 20 runoff to decide whether they want Republican Karen Handel or Democrat Jon Ossoff to represent them.

They’re hitting early voting sites, hard.

Almost 63,000 people had already voted in the contest by Wednesday morning, easily surpassing the first round of early voting in April when about 55,000 people cast ballots. For the runoff, early voting ends June 16 and the total may stretch to 100,000.

Experts say more people could be voting early because they are going out of town for work or on vacation, or have an obligation with kids now out of school for the summer.

Some are sick of all the phone calls, ads and campaign pitches. Others are fired up about the candidates and the chance to support or stick it to the president.

Then there’s the convenience. District voters interviewed this week said they felt it was far easier to cast a ballot now than face a potential waiting line on Election Day.

“I’m retired and there’s no reason I should be here when everybody else has to vote,” said Fred Heine, 70, of Roswell, who voted this week at that city’s public library.

He’s an Ossoff supporter. “I know this is going to sound prejudicial,” he said, “but I want to see more Democrats in our local government and representing us in Washington.

He wasn’t alone in wanting to get voting over with.

“You never know how long the line is going to be,” said James Moore, 50, who works in financial services and stopped by the Roswell public library on Monday to vote and avoid lines at polling places on the 20th.

He voted for Handel.

“I think she’s more conservative, that’s the thing,” he said. “She wasn’t my first pick in the Republican side, but of the two candidates remaining I think she’s much more conservative and about smaller government. The biggest issue for me is smaller government. There’s way too much regulation.”

While the turnout during off-year special elections is typically low, Georgia’s 6th District special election on April 18 (which decided who was in this month’s runoff) topped a respectable 37 percent — nearly 194,000 people voted. That’s a turnout more common for a midterm contest than a special election.

But interest in this election has gone far beyond the confines of the suburban district.

It has been pegged nationally as an early referendum on President Donald Trump’s administration. Scores of outside groups from both sides have invested in the outcome, using both dollars and volunteers to sway voters.

More than $36 million has already been spent on the race so far, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis, making the contest the most expensive in the history of the U.S. House. Voters in the 6th District — and beyond — have been inundated with TV ads, and signs promoting the candidates have dotted much of the metro area.

As a result, GOP strategist Chip Lake predicted a more than 200,000-voter turnout this time around, while others have said it will go higher. If so, that would be incredible for a district that boasts almost 530,000 registered voters and includes parts of three of metro Atlanta’s most populous counties — Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton.

"That's a big, big turnout in a special election in the hot, hot summer anywhere," Lake said. "But I don't know that it necessarily favors one candidate over another. We just have to spend some time and figure out who these people are."

Adding to the suspense, nearly 8,000 voters have been added to the district's voting rolls since the April special election. Experts say those are likely to be "high propensity" voters — meaning they are more likely to turn out to vote than skip the race.

“The federal judge’s ruling to reopen voter registration was a game changer for the Ossoff campaign because it allowed him to hopefully expand the electorate,” Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson said.

As part of an ongoing lawsuit over how Georgia handles voter registration ahead of federal runoff elections, a judge in early May extended registration in the district through May 21.

Johnson said the early voting numbers should favor Ossoff because Democrats traditionally do a better job of getting their voters to the early voting sites.

“Both campaigns have put a lot of resources into turning out their voters early before they go away for the summer vacation,” Johnson said. “I truly believe a majority of voters in the 6th Congressional District have made up their mind who to vote for.”

Wayne and Maureen Darling are among them. Wayne is 68. Maureen is 69. Both are retired. Both voted for Ossoff.

“A counter to Donald Trump is probably the biggest one,” said Wayne Darling, when asked what issues motivated him. Ossoff, he added, could bring political change “more so than Karen, who’s just been part of election after election.”

Handel ran for various offices five times from 2002 to 2014.

Cindy Furman, 51, who voted for Handel this week while on a break from work, sees her as part of the local community, unlike Ossoff, who lives outside the district, near Emory University.

“I would like someone from within our district representing us. And someone who supports the president,” the Milton resident said. “There’s been all kinds of things being said, but she’s been involved from day one in our community. She has a very good track record.”