Georgia Voters Face Fresh Mail-In Ballot Hurdles in Senate Runoff

(Bloomberg) -- Georgia voters face new obstacles to casting mail ballots in the closely watched run-off election due to changes from a controversial law passed last year, according to voting rights groups.

Most Read from Bloomberg

The law cut in half the time between a general election and a runoff, making it hard for voters to request, receive and return a mail ballot in time for the Dec. 6 election to determine the state’s Senate seat.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Crystal Greer, Protect the Vote GA co-founder. “Voters are confused and organizers are scrambling.”

As a result, progressive-leaning organizations such as Protect the Vote GA, New Georgia Project and Common Cause are urging voters to instead take advantage of early in-person voting, which began Tuesday in one of the state’s 159 counties.

The fight over vote-by-mail is already the subject of a legal fight in Georgia over whether to allow early voting on Saturday because of losing a day to the Thanksgiving holiday. A number of larger, Democratic-leaning counties plan to offer it, but Republicans are asking the state Supreme Court to block it.

In the Nov. 8 election, Democrat incumbent US Senator Raphael Warnock led Republican and ex-football star Herschel Walker by about 38,000 votes -- shy of the 50% needed to avoid a run-off. The seat will determine whether President Joe Biden’s party expands its thin majority in the chamber after Republicans took control of the House in the midterms.

Mail-In Ballots

Since the 2020 election, Democrats have embraced vote-by-mail. In the 24 states that report partisan data, Democrats cast mail-in ballots by nine percentage points more than Republicans, according to the US Elections Project.

Georgia does not have a permanent mail voter list, which means most people have to request a mail ballot for the runoff even if they voted by mail in November.

To complicate things, government offices in Georgia will be closed for Thanksgiving and observance of an state holiday on Friday, slowing the mailing of ballots, which must also be received by elections offices by the time polls close on Election Day.

More than 248,000 Georgia voters cast a mail ballot in the Nov. 8 election, about 6% of the total vote, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Statistics from the US Elections Project show vote-by-mail was particularly popular in Georgia this year with voters over the age of 65 and women.

The shorter runoff was one of a number of changes in SB 202, the 95-page law signed in 2021 to change how Georgia elections are run. In a speech in Atlanta in January, Biden attacked the law and others like it as “Jim Crow 2.0,” referencing the notorious restrictions on voting in the pre-Civil Rights era.

Georgia’s secretary of state office didn’t immediately return messages left for comment.

The law also made it harder to request a mail ballot, requiring voters to print out and sign a form in ink before returning it, said Stephanie Ali, policy director for the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a statewide nonpartisan civic participation organization.

“These changes will deeply hurt voters because of the shorter timeline for the runoff,” she said.

Voting rights advocates say that while the law made it harder for some voters to cast a ballot by limiting ballot drop boxes and shortening deadlines, it did not deter most voters. The state broke its 2020 record for early turnout in the midterms, although overall turnout was closer to a typical midterm election.

Runoff elections were held in Georgia three weeks after the general election until 2012, when the timeline was extended to nine weeks by a federal court to give military and overseas voters more time to return ballots. Those voters now receive a ranked-choice ballot that allows them to cast their runoff vote in advance.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.