Capitol Recap: Early voters get Georgia’s US Senate runoff started at record pace

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Some spend more than two hours waiting to cast their ballots

Fewer days may have led to bigger days for early voters in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff.

A record 301,545 went to the polls on Monday, the first day they were open in most counties ahead of Tuesday’s contest between Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker.

Even more — 309,083 — came out the next day. The numbers dropped off slightly on the third day, to about 281,000.

All three days topped the previous high of 252,715 ballots cast on the last day of early voting in the 2016 presidential race.

The totals for those first three days came on top of a couple of busy days over the weekend, when about 157,000 voters cast ballots in the 34 counties that chose to open their polls.

Once you throw in absentee ballots, more than 1.1 million votes were cast through Wednesday.

During the Nov. 8 general election — when total turnout reached 3.96 million voters — neither Warnock nor Walker won a majority of the vote, making Tuesday’s runoff necessary.

The figures offer hints of good news for both candidates.

A point for Warnock: The turnout in counties where the Democrat led in the Nov. 8 general election totaled about 478,000 people through the second day of early voting, compared with about 355,000 ballots in counties that backed Walker.

A good trend for Walker: His campaign manager, Scott Paradise, said turnout was particularly strong Monday in lightly populated rural counties where Walker outdid Warnock in the general election. Two of the GOP’s larger strongholds, Forsyth and Hall counties, also saw big business at the polls.

The rush wasn’t quite as positive for some voters who had to wait in lines for more than two hours. Republicans blamed delays on county staffing decisions. Democrats, however, linked the long lines to the smaller window for early voting during the shorter runoff period.

Early voting normally takes place over three weeks during nonrunoff elections, but the election overhaul that the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed last year shortened the period between general and runoff elections from nine weeks to four.

That, in turn, left only five mandatory statewide days of early voting, ending Friday, though county governments had the option of starting sooner.

If you prefer voting on election day, about 2,430 local precincts will be open Tuesday. You can find voting locations through the state’s My Voter Page at mvp.sos.ga.gov.

Critics seek an alternative to Georgia’s runoff system

Lots of people have been participating in this year’s runoff, but the system itself might not win a popularity vote.

Tuesday’s faceoff between Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker will cost local governments in metro Atlanta more than $10 million. Millions more will be spent in other parts of the state.

Two years ago, with two U.S. Senate seats up for grabs, it cost Georgia taxpayers $75 million to conduct the runoffs, according to a study by Kennesaw State University researchers that was funded by supporters of a runoff alternative called instant-runoff voting.

Georgia and Louisiana are currently the only two states that require a runoff after a general election when no candidate wins a majority of votes cast, as happened in November when Libertarian Shane Oliver shaved off enough votes to deny either Warnock or Walker the majority needed to win outright.

Mississippi will get in the runoff game next year.

Some Georgia election organizations want the state to shed the current runoff system.

They want to adopt instant-runoff voting, which would require voters to identify second-choice candidates during the general election. If your first choice doesn’t make the top two, your second choice kicks into action.

Georgia already has an instant-runoff system in place for members of the military and overseas voters. Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina do the same thing.

An organization called Better Ballot Georgia wants the same option for all of the state’s voters. It’s collecting voter signatures on an online petition seeking legislation to require instant runoffs.

Daniel Baggerman, the group’s president, cites the expense and generally lower turnout for runoffs in calling them “a lose-lose.”

He said in a statement that “instant-runoff voting is faster, cheaper and a better way to run our elections.”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Kemp blasts Trump-Fuentes dinner, but Walker remains mum

Former President Donald Trump drew a rebuke from Gov. Brian Kemp for dining with white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, but GOP U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker offered no real response.

“Racism, antisemitism and denial of the Holocaust have no place in the Republican Party and are completely un-American,” Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He also added he’s proud of the relationship he has forged with the Jewish community and Israel.

Kemp currently has a much rockier relationship with Trump, who blames the governor for not doing enough to overturn his loss in Georgia’s 2020 presidential election. Trump retaliated by persuading former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to wage a campaign in the GOP primary to unseat Kemp. But the governor beat Trump’s proxy by 52 percentage points.

Trump has said that Fuentes showed up “unexpectedly” at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago home with a group that came with rapper Kanye West, who also has a history of antisemitic statements. He said he didn’t know who Fuentes was.

The 24-year-old Fuentes has gained a lot of attention, though. He has been labeled a “white supremacist” by federal prosecutors for views that include demands that Jewish people leave the country and calls for military intervention in majority-Black neighborhoods.

Fuentes also stages an annual America First Political Action Conference that has drawn white supremacists and other far-right activists. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, appeared at the conference in February, when people in the crowd cheered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and chanted Vladimir Putin’s name.

Georgia has also served as host to some of Fuentes’ activities. He joined protests outside the state Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion in 2020 promoting Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud.

Walker, who might need the help of Trump supporters in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate runoff, declined through an aide to comment on the former president or Fuentes.

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Judge in Fulton election probe singles out Georgia GOP chairman

It’s either Georgia Republican Chairman David Shafer or 10 other “alternate” GOP electors.

That’s the choice Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney gave lawyers in choosing whom to represent in an ongoing criminal investigation into Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.

McBurney is overseeing the Fulton County special grand jury that’s investigating allegations that then-President Donald Trump and his allies meddled in the election.

Shafer and the 10 others were part of a group of 16 individuals who cast Electoral College votes for Donald Trump in a committee room at the state Capitol on the same day the official slate of 16 Democratic electors met on the Senate floor upstairs to cast their votes in the presidential election for Joe Biden.

All 16 fake electors have been informed that they are targets of the investigation and could face criminal charges.

McBurney ordered the lawyers to choose their clients in response to a motion filed by Fulton County prosecutors that said two Atlanta lawyers could not jointly represent all 11 because potential conflicts of interest make such representation “rife with serious ethical problems.”

Legal experts have said the prosecutors may be trying to split up the fake electors’ representation in order to offer deals to some but not to others.

Atlanta attorneys Hollie Pierson and Kimberly Debrow argued against the split. They said all 11 are identically situated because each did nothing wrong.

But McBurney wrote that “the exception is David Shafer.”

McBurney cited the party chief’s role in establishing and convening the slate of GOP electors, his communications with “other key players in the District Attorney’s investigation” and his part in other efforts challenging the validity of the presidential vote count in Georgia.

“His fate with the special purpose grand jury (and beyond) is not tethered to the other 10 electors in the same manner in which those 10 find themselves connected,” McBurney wrote. The difference, he wrote, “makes it impractical and arguably unethical for Pierson and Debrow to represent all 11 together.”

Atlanta worst among US cities for income inequality; metro area does much better

Income inequality is worse in Atlanta than in any of the other largest U.S. cities, according to recent census data.

The larger metro area, however, doesn’t fare nearly as badly.

The rankings are based on a measure called the Gini coefficient that determines how wealth is distributed across a population. It’s expressed on a scale of zero to one, with zero representing complete income equality within a community, meaning every person has equal income. The higher the decimal score, the greater the inequality. A coefficient of one would mean one person holds all the wealth.

Atlanta’s score, based on census data from the years 2016 through 2020, is 0.5786. That’s the highest level of inequality for any city with more than 100,000 residents.

New Orleans had the second-worst coefficient at 0.5655.

Atlanta’s poor showing is nothing new. It has led the nation’s cities in income inequality for at least a decade.

A wide disparity means that a significant portion of a community is struggling, and that only intensifies when inflation surges, especially in the form of rising food and gas prices that hit lower-income residents harder.

“When a very large percentage is vulnerable to that kind of economic pressure, it says that we have a lot of work to do,” said Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which is currently seeing demand for its services soar.

The problem is more pervasive among the city’s Black residents. The median household income for a Black family in Atlanta is $28,000, while the median income for white families is roughly $84,000. Overall, Black residents account for half of the city’s population.

Experts point to several factors that have contributed to the city’s wealth gap, including pervasive redlining, mass incarceration, gentrification and the lack of health care access, highlighted most recently by last month’s closure of Atlanta Medical Center.

Metro Atlanta — 29 counties stretching to Georgia’s western and northern borders — does much better than the city in terms of inequality, with a Gini coefficient of 0.4708. That puts the region at No. 227, much better than metro areas such as New York (No. 39) and Houston (No. 117).

Political expedience

  • Is more than Georgia on his mind? “Hardworking Georgians” is a bit of a mantra for Gov. Brian Kemp, and now he’s taking it to a national level. He’s created his own federal political action committee, Hardworking Americans Inc., to support candidates across the country, according to Axios. Kemp could be using the PAC to boost his profile nationally. Known mostly as one of the few Republicans in the country who defied Donald Trump publicly, he’s gained additional attention by handily defeating the former president’s pick in this year’s GOP primary and then topping Democrat Stacey Abrams in the general election.
  • Seeking Ralston’s seat: Sheree Ralston, the widow of state House Speaker David Ralston, is running to succeed him in House District 7. Sheree Ralston, the executive director of the Fannin County Development Authority, will face competition for the seat her husband held for nearly 20 years. Brian K. Pritchard, the CEO of FetchYourNews.com, an online news site that covers parts of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, will also run in the special election. Gov. Brian Kemp has scheduled the election for Jan. 3. Kemp also has endorsed Ralston.
  • AAPI caucus forms: The 2023 legislative session will mark the first time the General Assembly has an Asian American Pacific Islander caucus. The bipartisan group will become among the largest of its nature in the country with 11 members: state Rep.-elect Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek; state Rep. Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock; state Rep.-elect Saira Draper, D-Atlanta; state Rep.-elect Soo Hong, R-Lawrenceville; state Sen.-elect Nabilah Islam, D-Lawrenceville; state Rep. Marvin Lim, D-Norcross; state Rep.-elect Farooq Mughal, D-Buford; state Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville; state Sen. Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville; state Rep.-elect Ruwa Romman, D-Peachtree Corners; and state Rep.-elect Long Tran, D-Dunwoody.
  • Butler remains in charge of Senate Democrats: State Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler will continue to lead Democrats in the chamber following a vote from the caucus. State Sens. Elena Parent and Harold Jones II will also continue to serve in caucus leadership, and they will be joined by state Sen. Sonja Halpern, the new caucus vice chair. The Senate Democrats also will have an operations budget of $1.3 million for this legislative cycle, a huge bump over the $315,000 they had a few years ago.
  • Some new and old faces in governor’s office: Bert Brantley, the deputy chief of staff for Gov. Brian Kemp, is switching jobs to become head of the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce. Much of Kemp’s staff will remain in place. Trey Kilpatrick will continue to be chief of staff, with David Dove as executive counsel and Kelly Farr as the chief of the Office of Planning and Budget. Lauren Curry, the state’s current chief operating officer, will take over Brantley’s duties, while Kristyn Long becomes chief operating officer. Brad Bohannon will remain director of governmental affairs and policy.

More top stories

Here’s a sample of other stories about Georgia government and politics that can be found at www.ajc.com/politics/: