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Georgia kicks off early voting for Senate seat race

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

Tis the season to be voting - well, at least in Georgia yet again. For the second time in as many years, voters there will decide who will represent them in the U.S. Senate in a December runoff. Incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, faces Republican Herschel Walker. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler joins me now to explain the state of the race.

Now, Stephen, it seems like we've seen this movie before - a closely divided battleground Senate contest heading into overtime in Georgia, lots of cash and attention focused on the candidates. Is this going to be a repeat of the runoff we saw after the 2020 presidential election?

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Well, Eric, think of it more like a reboot than a rerun. Yes, it's another Senate race decided in a runoff after no candidate got above the 50% mark in the general, and, yes, Georgians have been bombarded with mailers and TV ads and doorknockers urging them to get out to vote. But there have been some important changes since January 2021. The main tweak that's relevant changes the length of a runoff. Before, it was a nine-week runoff period, with three weeks of mandatory early voting. Now it's just four weeks after the general election. That's a much narrower window for all parties involved.

Consider this - campaigns don't have as much time to get out the vote. Elections officials have less time to prepare for the vote, and voters have a drastically shorter timeline to show up and vote before the December 6 Election Day. And mandatory statewide early voting only runs this Monday through Friday, though some counties have been able to open up in the last few days to serve voters.

DEGGANS: Now, I'm wondering about voter enthusiasm. The Democrats have already clinched control of the Senate. Has there been any sign that voters feel less motivated after Thanksgiving?

FOWLER: Well, there certainly is a sense of election fatigue in Georgia after a seemingly never-ending series of high-stakes elections, but motivation hasn't flagged. Democrats already have control of the chamber, but that 51st seat would end power-sharing on committees, weaken the influence of two Democrats that sometimes held up Democratic priorities and be a firewall for the 2024 Senate races on the ballot. And Republicans see the seat as a necessary pick-up to keep those divided committees. That, plus their narrow majority in the U.S. House, means they could have more control over the direction of Congress the next two years. Now, Eric, Democrats are also making this less about the next two years and more about six years and who's best to represent Georgia that time instead of the national implications.

DEGGANS: Well, we're seeing reports of long lines in some counties yesterday, after a lawsuit allowed Saturday voting. I'm wondering, is this a sign of voter enthusiasm, or are we seeing problems with conducting this election?

FOWLER: Well, as a reminder, optional Saturday voting was a relative last-minute addition after the state says it wasn't allowed and Democrats sued. So some counties didn't offer it because of staffing, and some offered fewer sites than they will later this week. There were long lines and frustrations in some places, but that's more a sign of enthusiasm than issues. Think of it like a theme park opening at Disney World. A ride, or polling site in this case, can only handle so many people per hour. So if there's a lot of people that line up before things open up or all at the same time, it creates this long line that takes a while to get through.

All told, nearly 70,000 people showed up on Saturday, and several counties are open today, too. So that's more people that are voting now, as opposed to on Election Day. And I know I sound like a broken record here, but even with all of this voting now, it really is going to come down to who ultimately shows up by the time polls close December 6 to see who's victorious.

DEGGANS: Well, that's Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler. Stephen, thank you.

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

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.