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Why Stacey Abrams isn’t conceding yet

Absentee ballots could force this race into a runoff.

Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams addresses supporters at an election watch party on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Narrowly behind in the vote count, Democrat Stacey Abrams has yet to concede to Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp in Georgia in one of the most-watched gubernatorial races of the year.

Kemp currently holds a narrow lead of 1,962,547 votes to Abrams’s 1,887,161, and Abrams is telling supporters to wait for full counts on absentee ballots to narrow the gap.

A critical piece of this puzzle is that in Georgia, unlike in most American states, you need a majority of all votes cast rather than a plurality to win the election. That means that even though Abrams almost certainly won't get enough votes out of the absentee ballot to actually overtake Kemp, she does stand a chance of doing well enough to push him below the 50 percent threshold. (Libertarian candidate Ted Metz has about 1 percent of the vote.) That would trigger a runoff on December 4 that would give Abrams a chance to prevail.

Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution observes that, historically, these Georgia runoff elections have not gone well for Democrats, both because Republicans tend to do better in low-turnout elections and because Libertarian voters tend to break for the GOP. In 2008, Democrats held out vague hope that Democrat Jim Martin might be able to prevail in a runoff against Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and provide them with a valuable 60th Senate vote, but instead, Chambliss romped to a huge victory. (Arlen Specter switching parties later briefly gave Democrats 60 votes anyway.)

One could, however, make the case that things have changed in 2018.

President Trump has rallied working-class white voters to the GOP’s cause but tended to alienate white college graduates, which has ended up closing the partisan gap in terms of propensity to vote in low-turnout elections. And throughout 2017 and early 2018, Democrats generally did very well in obscure special elections, only to do somewhat worse in big races that attracted a ton of attention.

Of course, an Abrams-Kemp race likely would attract tons of national attention, so a runoff might look more like a national midterm than like a typical low-turnout runoff election.

Runoff speculation aside, however, the basic problem for Abrams is that right now she’s behind, and though the absentee votes certainly could come through for her, there’s no guarantee that they will.

The larger background of technical and non-technical voting problems in Georgia this year is also crucial to understand. Kemp stayed in his job as secretary of state and administered the election while running in it. Democrats had high hopes for Georgia this year — hopes that appear to have been partially vindicated in the suburbs north of Atlanta, where Lucy McBath is likely to prevail in the district Jon Ossoff initially made famous — and the sense that they were potentially robbed of gubernatorial victory by vote suppression will sting.

Meanwhile, the race to replace Kemp as secretary of state between state Rep. Brad Raffensperger and former House member John Barrow looks almost certain to head to a runoff, meaning election fans will have reason to keep Georgia on our minds for at least another month.