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Early voting for the Georgia Senate runoff has begun

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's time to vote in Georgia again. Runoff will decide the U.S. Senate race there between the Democrat, Raphael Warnock, and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker. Election Day is December 6, but nearly two dozen counties are opening polls today for early voting now that a lawsuit over voting access has been resolved. We're joined now by Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Stephen, thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Always a pleasure.

SIMON: Runoff the last time Georgia voters elected a U.S. senator in 2020 - what's changed?

FOWLER: Well, Georgia's voting laws have changed. There was a sweeping 98-page law that did many things last year. But one big change got us to this point. All runoffs in Georgia are now four weeks after an election instead of nine. So instead of an early January election, voters will have the last opportunity to vote on Election Day, now December 6. Because of that, there's a much tighter window for counties to get finished processing the last election before they pivot to prepare for this election. And politically, the stakes are a little different because this time around, Democrats have already locked up control of the U.S. Senate. So while there are some benefits to Democrats having a 51st seat or Republicans having a 50th, there's a tiny bit less urgency and pressure around this quicker runoff election, meaning less money and advertising than that 2021 showdown.

SIMON: And help us understand what was at stake this week, specifically whether counties could allow voting today, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

FOWLER: Well, since it's a shorter period from one election to the next, Scott, the normal three weeks of mandatory in-person early voting in Georgia shrinks down to just five required days, next Monday through Friday. And you might be wondering, well, aren't people voting today, this Saturday? Yes. Counties have the option of starting as soon as possible if they wanted to. In fact, we've already seen 16,000 people vote Tuesday and Wednesday before the holiday. But there was definitely drama. The state originally thought counties could do Saturday voting, but reversed course after finding a state law limiting Saturday voting if it comes after a holiday, a.k.a. Thanksgiving on Thursday and, the day after, the aptly named Georgia State Holiday. So Democrats sued, saying there was precedent for voting on a Saturday after a holiday and that the state was wrong. Well, a judge agreed. An appeals court denied the state's request to block Saturday voting, and after state and national Republican Party plus the National Republican Senatorial Committee tried a last-ditch appeal, Georgia's Supreme Court shut them down, too, which is why there is now voting today.

SIMON: What I'll call this first round of the Senate race saw record spending and, of course, a narrow margin. What kind of impact could an extra voting day have on the outcome?

FOWLER: Well, every single vote counts. And right now there's about two dozen out of Georgia's 159 counties that are opening their polls today. Many of them are larger metropolitan Democrat-heavy areas, but there are several rural Republican counties that are voting today, too. It's also important to note historically in Georgia, Scott, more Republicans show up during in-person early voting than Democrats. But for this Senate race, Raphael Warnock actually earned more votes than Herschel Walker during the early voting period. Now, there is some concern among Republicans that their efforts fighting an extra day of early voting instead of pushing their voters to show up could ultimately end up harming Herschel Walker once all the votes are counted. But given the shortened window and outsized attention on the race, it's hard to tell who will ultimately benefit until early voting is over. Plus, a runoff election is full of surprises. So even if early voting numbers look good for one candidate, who shows up or doesn't on the Election Day could be the deciding factor that polls and predictions won't necessarily capture.

SIMON: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting, thanks so much.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.