ABOVE PHOTO: This combination of photos shows, Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Aug. 3, 2021, left, and Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaking in Perry, Ga., Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo)
By Meg Kinnard
WASHINGTON — Georgia’s election runoff rules could determine control of the Senate for the second time in a row, and Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock finds himself in the middle of it again — this time against Republican Herschel Walker.
Two years ago, two runoff election wins in Georgia tipped the Senate into Democratic hands.
This time, the candidates have just four weeks between the general election and the runoff to make their case, instead of the nine they had before.
Here’s a look at why that is, who the contenders are and how the Georgia Senate race will be decided in December:
WHO’S ON THE BALLOT?
A third candidate, Libertarian Chase Oliver, took 2.1% in the initial round of balloting Nov. 8. That was enough to keep both Warnock and Walker, the former University of Georgia football standout, from taking more than half the vote, which is required to avoid a runoff.
Less than 1 percentage point separated Warnock and Walker, with Warnock slightly ahead. They will be the only candidates up for consideration Dec. 6.
Warnock has campaigned on Democrats’ legislative accomplishments like coronavirus relief and infrastructure reforms. Walker has been beleaguered by a variety of critical attention, including claims he exaggerated his business success, as well as successive reports alleging that he encouraged and paid for a woman’s 2009 abortion.
It probably won’t hurt Walker that his alma mater’s team is having another great season: The top-ranked Bulldogs could be playing for the SEC championship in Atlanta three days before the runoff.
HOW WILL VOTING WORK?
The runoff campaign is structured similarly to any other, with weeks of intense stumping, advertising and surrogacy anticipated. Voters can request absentee ballots now, although they won’t be mailed until Nov. 18. Mail-in ballots have to be received by the time the polls close Dec. 6.
Early voting must start by Nov. 28, although some counties may start sooner.
Early voting ends Dec. 2.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST TIME?
It will be the second runoff for Warnock, who first won his seat in a Jan. 5, 2021, special election runoff. Together with Jon Ossoff’s victory in a concurrent Senate runoff, the Georgia seats gave Democrats the narrow majority they have been defending this year.
Unlike in 2020, only one of those Georgia seats is up this year. In defeating Republican Sen. David Perdue, Ossoff was elected to a full six-year term and won’t be up for reelection until 2026.
Whether Georgia becomes winner-take-all a second straight time will depend on Nevada, where Republican Adam Laxalt is trying to oust Democratic incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. She would need to retain her seat to make Georgia’s runoff anything less than the race that decides the Senate.
After those runoffs in early 2021, Georgia lawmakers passed voting law changes, among them a requirement that the runoff take place only four weeks after the general election. The new law’s Republican authors said the extended runoff period was exhausting for candidates, donors, and voters alike.
Critics suggested the change was aimed at suppressing Democratic turnout.
The new law also states that early voting should start “as soon as possible” but has to begin eight days ahead of the runoff — or, this year, Nov. 28.
Counties are allowed to open balloting earlier if they are able. Weekends give a chance for people who work weekdays to vote early, but this year they might not have that option. Georgia law says counties can’t hold early in-person voting on Thanksgiving or the following Friday and Saturday, and they can’t do it before the results of the general election are certified. That’s unlikely to happen before Nov. 21.
The upshot? No Saturdays of early voting will be offered for the runoff, and only some urban counties are likely to offer Sunday voting.
All of that could further hinder turnout, which conventional wisdom holds would tend to favor the Republican.
Due to the shortened window to deliver runoff ballots, military and overseas voters used ranked choice absentee ballots to rank all possible candidates before a primary or general election, allowing their preferences to be determined in any possible runoff.
Georgia’s deadline to register to vote in the runoff was Nov. 7.
WHAT ELSE HAS CHANGED SINCE 2021?
The new law gives the State Election Board the power to remove and replace local officials if an investigation finds local officials have repeatedly violated state election law or rules. This caused concerns that the Republican-controlled state board could exert more influence over the administration of elections, including the certification of county results.
There were also prohibitions on handing out “any money or gifts” — to include food and drink — to anyone standing in line to vote, a specificity that critics cast as needlessly cruel.
WHO’S WEIGHING IN?
Given the narrow partisan margin in the Senate, many of the elections across the country have attracted high-level surrogates, but Georgia at times has been the epicenter of national Democrats’ and Republicans’ efforts. Now, with the runoff on the calendar, that’s expected to increase, with potential 2024 presidential contenders piggybacking off of all the attention and attempting to tip the balance.