Early voting begins in Georgia runoff

() — Voting began on Saturday for the Georgia runoff election that could prove critical when it comes to the balance of power in the Senate.

More than 78,000 Georgians have already turned out to vote in the race, of the more than 7 million registered voters in the state.

Georgia law requires one candidate to receive at least half the votes to be determined the winner. Neither Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock nor Republican Herschel Walker received enough votes to qualify, with Warnock receiving 49.4 percent and Walker 48.5 percent. Libertarian Chase Oliver had the remaining 2.1 percent of votes.

A Georgia court ruled early voting could begin on Saturday after Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger said it would be illegal to begin voting the day after a state holiday. Warnock’s campaign and the Democratic Party of Georgia sued and a judge sided with them, prohibiting the state from interfering with any ballots cast.

At issue was a section of Georgia law that says early in-person voting is not allowed on a Saturday if the Thursday or Friday preceding it is a holiday. The state and Republican groups argued that means voting shouldn’t be allowed this Saturday, Nov. 26, because Thursday is Thanksgiving and Friday is a state holiday. Warnock’s campaign and Democratic groups argued that the prohibition applies only to primaries and general elections, not runoff elections.

Georgia requires five days of early voting and the ruling did not require counties to offer early voting on Nov. 26. Because of the short voting window for the runoff, it was the only Saturday for early voting. Roughly two dozen Georgia counties opened polls for early voters over the weekend.

Voters in some counties were greeted with long lines when the showed up to cast their ballots. There was also confusion about the hours for polling places, with some voters in Cobb County showing up before the elections office opened.

Early voters set records in Georgia during the midterm and both campaigns have been working to get out the vote again in a Senate race that has cost millions. Both candidates have been releasing ads and trading barbs as they seek to motivate supporters.

Walker also faces the need to draw more independents and moderates to his campaign after he underperformed a fellow Republican on the ticket, Gov. Brian Kemp, by 200,000 votes.

While Democrats are already projected to hold the Senate, a Warnock victory would give them more wiggle room than a 50/50 divided Senate. Vice President Kamala Harris would no longer need to serve as tie-breaker, requiring her to stay in Washington D.C. more often, and Leader Chuck Schumer would not have to share power with Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democrats would also be likely to hold more committee seats and it would give individual Senators less power to block or alter legislation by threatening to withhold their vote.

Should Walker pull ahead during the runoff, the Senate would remain in the current configuration, with Senators equally divided by party and Harris serving as the tie-breaker for the chamber.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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