Judge allows Saturday voting before U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia

State law allows Saturday voting after Thanksgiving holidays, judge rules

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A judge ruled that Georgia law allows Saturday voting before the runoff for the U.S. Senate, finding that polling places can open even though they follow state holidays on Thanksgiving and the day afterward that years ago honored Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cox decided Friday that state law permits counties to offer voting Nov. 26, finding in favor of Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s campaign.

County governments may now choose to offer residents an opportunity to vote on that Saturday in addition to five mandatory weekdays of early voting the following week.

The judge’s order reversed Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s interpretation that state law barred Saturday voting before the Dec. 6 runoff between Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker.

Cox sided with the plaintiffs, who argued in court Friday that a law barring Saturday voting after holidays only applies to regularly scheduled elections — not Georgia’s quick runoff election that leaves limited early voting days. Raffensperger’s office said it will appeal the ruling.

“Eliminating that day of weekend voting reduces voting opportunities,” said Uzoma Nkwonta, an attorney for the Warnock campaign, the Democratic Party of Georgia and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The court does not need to find that voting opportunities have been eliminated entirely to demonstrate that there’s been an impairment or infringement or burden on the right to vote.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Cox had questioned why local election offices couldn’t offer Saturday voting after a holiday as they did in the last U.S. Senate runoffs two years ago.

At the time, early voting was allowed Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, the day after Christmas when over 15,600 voters in three counties cast their ballots.

“I work during the week, and on the weekend you have more time. There are other Georgians who may only have limited time off, and that may be Saturday. What do you say to that?” Cox asked an attorney for the state.

Charlene McGowan, an assistant attorney general representing the state, responded that Sunday voting is available in counties that choose to offer it, giving voters flexibility on a weekend.

“There are many options available to voters so that no one’s right to vote is being denied here,” McGowan said. “It may be more convenient for some voters to offer a Saturday voting day, but again, that is not the issue before the court.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Nkwonta said the Georgia General Assembly in 2017 specifically removed the word “runoff” from a law preventing Saturday voting after a holiday, indicating that lawmakers intended for it to be permitted.

Initially, Raffensperger had said that early voting would be available on Saturday, Nov. 26, but his office later reversed course. A bulletin issued last weekend said state law prohibits Saturday voting on that day because it was within two days of holidays.

The limitation on Saturday voting after state holidays was passed in 2016, but it wasn’t an issue in runoffs until this year.

Previously, runoffs were held nine weeks after the general election, but Georgia’s voting law passed last year moved runoffs to four weeks after the initial election, creating a scheduling conflict with holidays during Thanksgiving week.

The Republican-majority General Assembly shortened the runoff period after Democrats Warnock and Jon Ossoff won their elections to the Senate, giving their party control of the chamber.

With less time before runoffs, there are fewer days of early voting available.

Before general and primary elections, 17 days of early voting are required. Before runoffs, five days are mandated.

Optional early voting days now include four additional days next week: Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. State law requires early voting to end the Friday before election day, on Dec. 2.

Several counties have already voted to allow Saturday voting if feasible, including Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas and Fulton. The judge’s order permits more counties to add Saturday voting without having to comply with laws that would require published notice seven days ahead of time.

For decades until late 2015, Georgia had a state holiday on the day after Thanksgiving memorializing Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general during the Civil War.

Gov. Nathan Deal changed the day’s name to a more neutral title, “State Holiday,” which is still observed on the same day of the calendar.