At first it seemed that exactly what Senator Raphael Warnock needed to prevail in the December 6 runoff against Republican Herschel Walker was happening: People all over the metro Atlanta area were waiting hours in line to vote early last weekend, almost all of them for Warnock.
On second glance, though, it looked like good old-fashioned Georgia voter suppression.
The 2021 Republican-peddled voting “reform” bill, SB 202, made a lot of changes after President Joe Biden won the state in 2020, and Warnock and Jon Ossoff gave Democrats their narrow Senate majority in 2021—even though, let’s remember, both Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rejected Donald Trump’s false claims that lax Georgia laws enabled fraud and cost him the election. They proclaimed the election clean and well-run—and then made umpteen changes to election law anyway. And as hard as Georgia Democrats fought to overcome the new barriers, in both November and December, they couldn’t surpass all of them.
Kemp and Raffensperger stood up to Trump on his phony claims. But they then went all in on a law that with surgical precision took aim at voting reforms that made casting a ballot easier for everyone, not just Democrats, during the Covid nightmare. For absolutely no valid reason, SB 202 cut short the election runoff period to four from nine weeks. It cut short, in both the general and runoff elections, the time to request and return absentee ballots. It limited the number of early voting sites as well as drop boxes where Georgians could return ballots they didn’t have time to mail.
Many Georgia voting activists are fuming about those unnecessary limits.
But most are still optimistic Warnock will win.
“It was hard to look at those incredibly long lines,” Care In Action executive director Hillary Holley confessed to me on Sunday morning, once early voting was over. On the last night it was allowed, at one polling place, she said, voters were still in line at 10:30 Friday night. Sure, that’s inspiring, but “we don’t know how many voters left those lines.”
Still, Holley feels good about Warnock’s chances. A record-breaking 1.85 million voters cast ballots early over the last week. And more than 76,000 voters who came out to early vote didn’t bother to vote at all in November. Warnock beat Walker by 37,600, but fell a fraction of a point short of winning outright and avoiding a runoff. No guarantee those new voters all go to Warnock, but it’s hard not to notice that they make up roughly twice the senator’s November deficit.
They also represent the multiracial coalition he needs. As NBC News reported on Sunday: “Among Georgians under 30 years old, 15.5 percent of early runoff voters didn’t turn out for the general election. Additionally, 8.4 percent of Hispanics and 9.5 percent of Asian Americans who have shown up for the runoff didn’t vote in the Nov. 8 election.” Women made up 56 percent of early voters, and Black people 32 percent. More good news for Warnock.
Why didn’t so many vote in November? Some people say there was complacency—how could Warnock possibly lose to a candidate as weak as Herschel Walker? (That low turnout also doomed Stacey Abrams’s second run for governor, just saying.) But Holley believes it’s because the “outside groups”—community-based, not formally affiliated with any campaign—got better funding for the runoff, and were able to get their acts together even on such short notice.
In November, State Representative Bee Nguyen told me she was disappointed that in the general election, when she ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state, there was very little outreach to Latinos and Asian Americans in their languages. Nguyen and Holley say that changed, quickly. Last week, Warnock’s campaign released digital campaign ads in Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Korean. Maybe too little, but hopefully not too late. Nguyen said no one came knocking on her door during the November general. She had many visitors over the last few weeks.
I covered the 2020 and 2021 Georgia elections from a distance—I was in California with my family for our first Covid Christmas, and I did everything over the phone. In some ways, that was easier. Have you ever driven around Metro Atlanta? But I also missed a lot. Partly because of Covid, although this could have become an ongoing tradition, all sorts of places were turned into polling sites. State Farm Arena, the home of the Atlanta Hawks, was probably the biggest. But Hillary Holley told me she went out and recruited art studios and theaters as polling locations too. Voting should be fun! And it was, for a few months in Georgia a couple of years ago.
Then SB 202 made sure that only publicly owned facilities could be polling places. What is the point of that? I like elevating publicly owned facilities when it makes sense. But when it limits options? And limits joy? And limits voter access?
Holley told me something I hadn’t heard before and that I think we need to take seriously: Progressive activists and donors never fully debriefed about the lessons of the exhilarating Georgia Senate runoff.
Election Day was January 5, 2021; we got final results the morning of January 6. In California, I was three hours behind. I remember running to the living room to turn on the television when a friend texted me that Jon Ossoff had won his Senate seat (Warnock’s race was called on election night). But when I got there, MSNBC wasn’t talking about Georgia; it was showing bewildering footage of crazy-looking people climbing the steps of the Capitol. And then it just got worse. We all got distracted, for a long time after. I wrote about how the insurrection kept us from celebrating the Georgia Senate wins; I didn’t think about how it kept us from examining what made them possible.
I’m very much hoping Georgia’s voting rights activists will have the time, even in this holiday season, to examine what went right and wrong in the runoff and the general election. It is thrilling to hear stories that remind me of January 2021, but I would have liked to hear more of them in November 2022, especially behind Abrams’s gubernatorial run. That will hurt for a while.
But it’s fun to see Georgia voters having fun again. “You did a buy one, get one free deal on elections this year,” President Barack Obama joked this weekend on the campaign trail, as folks shouted, “¡Si se puede!” and he hollered back, “Yes we can!” Can we? We’ll see.
For his part, Herschel Walker doesn’t seem to be doing enough with his “mulligan,” as Georgia’s GOP Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan said this week. Walker got “an extra four weeks to convince the 200,000 Georgians who pulled the lever for Gov. [Brian] Kemp and Sen. Warnock to change their minds,” Duncan said. “It certainly doesn’t feel like he’s made enough progress on that mission,” he added, “and he’s running out of time.” On Thursday Duncan confessed that he waited in line for an hour to vote early, but walked away without casting a ballot.
Personally, I enjoyed a story I saw on MSNBC about a man who said he was a committed Republican, a small-business owner, who voted for Walker in November, and again last week. But he’s not that high on his candidate.
“I’m a Republican… [Walker’s] he’s gonna lose, in all probability. Mr. Warnock is a wonderful individual.”
That Georgia businessman seemed like a nice guy. But what does it take to be that kind of person? Warnock is “a wonderful individual,” which he pointedly didn’t say about the guy he voted for. He doesn’t even think the guy he voted for can win. People talk about tribalism in our politics as though it’s January 6 insurrectionists against “defund the police” supporters. But the defining factor is men like that guy who votes Republican, because he’s a small-business owner, even while admiring his opponent more. Who’s got a hot take on that? Because I sure don’t. How do you vote for Herschel Walker while believing Raphael Warnock is a “wonderful individual” and anyway, your dude can’t win?
I hope Hillary Holley pulls together an analysis of what went right in this December runoff, but that she also gets some help from Republicans determined to understand what went wrong. Because that’s just wrong.