Voting ends in Georgia Senate runoffs, but results could take a while

Control of the Senate could flip if Democrats win both races

Georgia's two Senate runoff elections were closely tied to President Donald Trump's refusal to accept that he lost the state in the November election.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Georgia's two Senate runoff elections were closely tied to President Donald Trump's refusal to accept that he lost the state in the November election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 5, 2021 at 6:55pm

Voting has ended in most of Georgia in Tuesday's hotly contested Senate runoff elections, but officials and groups watching the process said it could be Wednesday or later before the winners, and therefore party control of the Senate, is known.

“I think it will probably take until tomorrow some time,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said on CNN on Tuesday afternoon. The election saw more than 3.1 million people vote early in person or through the mail, and both President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden were in the state Monday to urge those who hadn’t voted to do so.

Most polls in the race showed the candidates within the margins of error, making turnout — especially for Republicans who tend to favor in-person voting on Election Day, essential. While election officials began processing absentee ballots in advance, they could not begin to count them until the polls closed.

Georgia NAACP president James Woodall said during a press call Tuesday that he did not expect to know the winners until Friday, the deadline for absentee ballots cast by members of the military and voters living overseas to be received and for provisional ballots to be “cured,” a process that usually requires voters to submit identification to their county registrar’s office. 

“We will not rush into crowning a victor or anything like until every single vote is counted,” he said. 

It took three days after the November election for two networks — and 10 days for The Associated Press — to declare Biden the winner of Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in a race decided by three-tenths of a percentage point. But Trump has continued to dispute the result with false claims of fraud that stuck with some voters, especially his fellow Republicans. Exit polls taken by TV networks found just 74 percent of runoff voters were very or somewhat confident their votes would be counted accurately.

With the GOP holding 50 seats and Democrats and independents who caucus with them holding 48, control of the Senate will be decided by the two runoffs. GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler faces Reverend Raphael Warnock in a special election for a two-year unexpired term, and Republican David Perdue, whose previous six-year term ended Sunday, faces Democrat Jon Ossoff, a documentary film producer. 

The extraordinary stakes of the two elections attracted record-shattering sums of money from both sides as leaders from both parties converged on the state, concluding with the election-eve visits from Biden and Trump.

Biden, the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since 1992, urged voters at a rally to send Ossoff and Warnock to join him in revitalizing the economy, expanding health care and voting rights, and addressing criminal justice and climate change. He also derided Loeffler and Perdue as too beholden to Trump, who is using false claims about election fraud to usurp the election.

"You have two senators now who think they don't work for you, they work for Trump," Biden said. "As our opposition friends are finding out, all power flows from the people, from the people. That's our history, that's our law, that's our tradition, that's our Constitution. Politicians cannot assert, take or seize power. Power is given, granted by the American people."

The candidates, meanwhile,  presented their races in the starkest of terms.   

Ossoff and Warnock portrayed the Republican incumbents, both of whom are among the wealthiest members of Congress, as self-interest plutocrats who had mismanaged the response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Loeffler and Perdue declared themselves the last line of defense against Democratic control in Washington and said their opponents were radical socialists who would sell out the state’s interests to party leaders in Washington. 

"If the left wins these Senate seats, they will abolish ... the filibuster, they will knock it out," Trump said. "That would give them the power to ram through every deluded piece of left-wing legislation that they've ever wanted, that they've ever dreamt of. Your religious liberty will be gone, your Second Amendment will be gone, your borders and great new wall will be gone, your police departments will be gone as we know them, and your life savings will be gone. ... America, as you know it, it will be over, and it will never, I believe, be able to come back again. It will be too far gone."

Strategists from both sides agreed that the elections took place in such a partisan and nationalized environment that the candidates had little hope of persuading new voters. 

Rather, the candidates were focused on turning out as much as their base as possible during a time of year when all but the most engaged voters are thinking about other things. 

But these elections were nothing like the sleepy runoffs of Georgia's past. 

Democrats, electrified by Biden’s win in November, saw an opportunity to hold up the state as an example of the strides the left could make in the new South. Georgia, they argued, is no longer a red state, thanks to demographic shifts and voter mobilization efforts that have resulted in the registration of hundreds of thousands of new voters, many of them people of color. 

The Republicans' messaging was complicated by Trump’s baseless insistence that the presidential election was stolen. 

The president and his supporters increasingly focused their ire on Republican election officials in Georgia who certified Biden’s win, cleaving the state’s Republican Party and undermining GOP leaders’ calls to vote with conspiracy theories about mismanagement of the November election. 

Loeffler and Perdue sided with Trump, saying on Monday that they would stand with GOP senators who planned to object Wednesday to certifying Biden’s Electoral College win. 

Perdue will not be there, however, as his term ended Sunday, and the results of Tuesday’s election will not be certified in time for him to vote even if he comes out ahead of Ossoff. Perdue spent the final days of his campaign in quarantine after coming into contact with a member of his campaign staff who tested positive for COVID-19.

Spending on both sides in the two races had topped $832 million by Tuesday, according to the Center for Responsive Politics

Ossoff and Warnock raised a combined $210 million from Oct. 15 through Dec. 16, compared with the Republicans’ combined $132 million, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on Dec. 24. 

But the Republicans nearly matched the Democrats’ war chests for the final weeks of the races. Perdue and Loeffler disclosed a combined $37.3 million in cash on hand as of Dec. 16, and Ossoff and Warnock disclosed a combined $40.2 million. Republican outside groups have also been outspending their Democratic counterparts.

Democratic hopes have been buoyed by early voting numbers. More than 3 million Georgians cast early absentee and in-person ballots, shattering the state record of 2.1 million voters in the 2004 runoff election that sent Republican Saxby Chambliss to the Senate, state voting system implementation manager Gabriel Sterling said at a press conference Monday.

More voters of color, who tend to favor Democrats, cast ballots early than they did in the November election. Nearly 116,000 voters who did not cast ballots in November have voted in the runoffs, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.