Disillusioned Republicans return to polls after ’21 U.S. Senate runoff

Voters leave behind bluster over Georgia’s 2020 presidential race

Credit: John Spink/AJC

Credit: John Spink/AJC

Turned off by the chaos that followed the 2020 presidential election, Republican voters who skipped Georgia’s runoffs for U.S. Senate are starting to come back.

Nearly one-third of the 748,000 voters who sat out the 2021 runoffs, which flipped control of the U.S. Senate to the Democratic Party, turned out for last year’s general election, according to an analysis of voting records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Faith in democracy is gradually being restored among those voters, two and a half years since former President Donald Trump’s loss and his false fraud claims disillusioned many conservative voters as liberal turnout boomed for Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

Though some Georgians have returned to elections, most of those who stayed home for the U.S. Senate runoffs on Jan. 5, 2021, also didn’t show up for the midterm elections last November. Midterms always have lower turnout than presidential elections, and sporadic voters are less likely to participate.

Overall, about 227,000 of the 748,000 presidential election voters who skipped the U.S. Senate runoffs cast ballots in the 2022 midterm election, which included races for U.S. Senate and governor.

Voters’ reasons varied when asked why they took a pass on the January 2021 runoffs but returned in November 2022.

Some said they were disgusted by all the candidates at the time, when Trump claimed the election was stolen and Democrats from across the country focused on Georgia’s two Senate seats. Others said they were too busy to vote again in the runoff. None cited concerns about voting fraud or election integrity.

Lynnette Basinger, a Roswell voter who works in marketing, said she lost faith in elections because of poor candidates and negative campaigns — not because of concerns about Georgia’s voting process.

“I voted for Trump out of desperation, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take the constant barrage of him accusing people and others accusing him, and I was at wit’s end,” Basinger said. “Everyone starts to point fingers because one party is losing over another. I just think the quality of the candidates and parties has really deteriorated.”

Like Basinger, Greg Hardin said he was turned off by the highly political and partisan climate after the presidential election.

“It certainly isn’t that I have any conspiracy theories or anything like that,” Hardin said. “The biggest reason is that it’s become too political. I just didn’t pay as much attention to it as I should have.”

Voter confidence in elections has steadily increased since the 2020 presidential election, according to polling by the AJC.

About 73% of registered voters said in January they were confident or somewhat confident that last November’s general election was conducted fairly and accurately, an increase from 56% of voters expressing confidence in January 2022. The increase in confidence coincided with Republicans winning almost all statewide races in November 2022.

Republicans attribute gains in voter confidence to changes in Georgia’s voting laws since 2020, which limited ballot drop boxes, required more voter ID for absentee voting, prohibited mass-mailings of absentee ballot application forms and banned nonprofit donations to local election offices.

Conservative voters are responding to those changes, which assured them that elections are fair and their votes matter, said Kelly Loeffler, the Republican former senator who founded Greater Georgia, a voter registration and outreach organization, after her loss to Warnock.

“It takes years to build trust, and it takes minutes to destroy it,” Loeffler said. “After the unprecedented changes we saw in the 2020 election, it’s taking time to rebuild. … We certainly need to learn from each cycle and then build on that to grow participation.”

Greater Georgia identified 339,000 conservative-leaning voters who failed to vote in the 2021 U.S. Senate runoff — more than enough to swing the election if they had all turned out and supported Loeffler and former Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

About 142,000 of those voters, 42%, voted in the 2022 general election after Greater Georgia contacted them by text messages, direct mail, email, digital ads and in-person canvassing.

On the other side of the political spectrum, voters were motivated in the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs because they understood their national impact, said Ranada Robinson, research director for New Georgia Project, a voter registration group that focuses on minority and young voters.

“They were hearing it in church, the barbershop, the grocery store — everywhere they went. They knew how important that election was,” Robinson said. “We were propelled by momentum coming from such a historic presidential election. For Black voters, a lot of people felt like a second Trump term was a threat to our democracy.”

It’s impossible to quantify how many of the 748,000 nonvoters in the U.S. Senate runoffs would have supported Republican or Democratic candidates, but voter participation data showed that more than half of them were white, and many of them lived in rural areas — constituencies that lean toward Republicans.

The sharpest declines in turnout during the runoffs were in congressional districts represented by Republicans: U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in northwest Georgia and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter in southeast Georgia.

The absence of Trump from the 2022 election cycle likely made a difference in voter confidence and participation, said Zachary Peskowitz, an Emory University political science professor whose research includes voter turnout and attitudes.

“You don’t have Trump and his allies making these very high-profile claims that the election was stolen and that there was systematic electoral fraud,” Peskowitz said. “Things that candidates say and advertisements that candidates make have a real effect on turnout, but they don’t last very long.”

By the numbers

5 million: Turnout in Georgia’s 2020 presidential election

748,000: Voters who didn’t return for the U.S. Senate runoffs in 2021

3.96 million: Turnout in the 2022 midterm election

227,000: Nonvoters from the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs who participated in the ‘22 midterm

How we reported this story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution compared publicly available voter participation records to find out who voted in the 2020 presidential election, the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs and the 2022 general election. The data showed that 30% of the 748,000 presidential election voters who declined to participate in the Senate runoffs turned out for last year’s general election.

Phone calls to a sample of dozens of those voters in the metro Atlanta area provided insight into their reasons for turning out, and voter registration organizations provided details about their outreach efforts to motivate inconsistent voters to show up for elections.