High election day turnout in Georgia led to close U.S. Senate races

Turnout on Tuesday for Georgia's U.S. Senate runoffs exceeded Nov. 3 totals in most counties, both urban and rural. “This blows every turnout model away,” said Gabriel Sterling, voting system manager in the secretary of state’s office. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Turnout on Tuesday for Georgia's U.S. Senate runoffs exceeded Nov. 3 totals in most counties, both urban and rural. “This blows every turnout model away,” said Gabriel Sterling, voting system manager in the secretary of state’s office. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

A huge number of Georgia voters, 1.3 million, showed up for Tuesday’s U.S. Senate runoffs as Republicans needed a big election day turnout to catch up with Democrats’ lead in absentee and early voting.

It wasn’t enough, though, for Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

While Republican voters came out in force, so did Democrats. Turnout in the runoffs far exceeded the 988,000 voters who cast ballots in the presidential election on Nov. 3.

The high-stakes election for control of the U.S. Senate motivated voters from all parties to participate, breaking records for a runoff. Several national news outlets declared Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock the winners Wednesday.

“Republicans needed very strong election day turnout to compensate for weaker early voting turnout,” said Bernard Fraga, an Emory University political science professor who studies voting. “Their turnout was about as strong as expected, but Democrats turned out at much higher rates than expected.”

Going into election day, Democrats had a 385,000-vote advantage in the Perdue-Ossoff race, primarily from absentee ballots, according to preliminary results. Republicans made up about 358,000 votes to narrow that gap on Tuesday. The Democrats’ lead could widen, though, as more absentee ballots from metro Atlanta counties are tallied.

Voters from each party responded to get-out-the-vote efforts backed by roughly half a billion dollars in fundraising for the four candidates, said Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting system manager. Turnout on Tuesday exceeded Nov. 3 totals in most counties, both urban and rural.

“This blows every turnout model away,” said Sterling, a Republican. “There was a real big push to get people out on the last day. But the Democrats did a very good job of banking their votes early and using the (early voting) options that have been available to Georgians for over a decade.”

In heavily Democratic precincts, election day turnout was up 22% over Election Day in November, according to an analysis by Fraga. In heavily Republican precincts, turnout increased by 29% over the presidential election — a strong showing but short of what the GOP needed.

Black voting strength also helped the Democratic candidates for the Senate, Fraga said.

Black voters made up 31% of total early voting turnout, according to state election data, more than their 30% share of the state’s registered voters. Election day demographic data wasn’t immediately available.

“Georgia is a battleground state thanks to the relentless work done toward investing in and turning out voters of color,” said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a voter registration organization. “We are undoing a history of voter suppression and injustice in Black and brown communities.”

In all, over 4.4 million people voted in the Senate runoffs, less than the 5 million voters in the general election. While runoff election day turnout was higher than in November, early and absentee turnout was lower.

The Republican Senate candidates received about 63% of the election day vote, and the Democratic candidates won 56% of the larger early and absentee vote.

Runoff turnout

4.4 million: Total turnout

1.3 million: Election day

2.1 million: In-person early voting

1 million: Absentee voting

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