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The high stakes and unique weirdness of the Georgia Senate runoff, briefly explained

Sen. Raphael Warnock and former football player Herschel Walker will face off one more time in December.

Split photo of Herschel Walker campaigning on November 16, and Senator Raphael Warnock campaigning on November 17.
Herschel Walker, left, on November 16, and Sen. Raphael Warnock, right, on November 17.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

In many ways, this year’s Georgia Senate runoff is a lot like the last one.

Once again, Georgia is holding a runoff after neither Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) nor his opponent, former football player Herschel Walker, got more than 50 percent in November’s general election. The stakes are high, if not quite as high as they were in 2021: Democrats already won 50 seats and kept the Senate majority, but gaining another seat could increase their power on different committees and hedge against potential losses in 2024.

There are some notable differences, though. Because of a new state election law that went into effect last year, there are key changes to the logistics of the election and who can vote in it. Those updates, ultimately, could impact participation, reducing the amount of time people have to engage in early voting and mail-in voting.

Here’s what to know about the effects of the new election law, the stakes of the runoffs, and where things currently stand between the two candidates.

When is the Georgia runoff?

The runoffs will take place on Tuesday, December 6, and results could be available within one to two days, depending on how close it is. This past November, Georgia was able to announce the outcome of the Senate race a day after the general election. The state has expedited how it processes mail-in ballots compared to 2020, a change that could help get results sooner compared to past elections.

Early voting will give voters a chance to participate before December 6 as well: It will be available in all counties between November 28 and December 2, and was available in a handful of counties as early as November 22. Georgia’s Secretary of State website offers information about when each county will kick off early voting and where voters can go.

Voters can also participate in the runoff by mail. To do so, they have to submit an application for an absentee ballot to their county election office by Monday, November 28. Voters can submit these applications online, via email, mail, fax, or in-person. They’ll then have to send these ballots back or drop them off so that their county election office receives them by 7 pm on December 6, the day of the runoff.

The timing of this year’s election marks a change from how things were conducted in 2021, when there were nine weeks between the general election and the runoff. This year, there’s just four weeks, the result of a new law signed in 2021 that oversees how the state holds elections. In 2021, there were three weeks of early voting, compared to the week or less many counties will have in 2022.

That change could affect voter participation, particularly among Democrats, who are more likely to use early voting and mail-in options, the Associated Press reports. “For voters who are registered and planning to vote, the biggest effect will be the fewer number of early voting opportunities they have and the constricted timeline for absentee voting,” University of Georgia law professor Lori Ringhand told Vox.

Who can vote?

In 2022, only voters who were already registered to vote prior to the general election are able to do so.

This is also another difference from 2021, when new people were able to register specifically for the runoff election. That year, more than 75,000 new voters registered after the deadline had passed for the general election, in time to weigh in on the runoffs.

The new election law, SB 202, specifies that voters need to register at least 30 days before an election to be eligible to participate in it. So between that and the shortened window between the two races, those who haven’t registered yet don’t have time to do so before the runoff.

Those who are already registered, however, are able to participate in the runoff even if they didn’t vote in the general election.

Where does the race stand now?

The race between Warnock and Walker is expected to be close. (It’s the only statewide race in the runoff election, though some counties could have other races at the local level.)

Warnock had the edge in the general election and could well have it again in the runoff, though both face the challenge of getting their voters to turn out for the second time in less than a month.

In the general election, Warnock secured 49.4 percent of the vote, Walker secured 48.5 percent, and libertarian candidate Chase Oliver secured 2.1 percent. A mid-November AARP poll, one of the few conducted after the general election, had Warnock four points ahead among likely voters.

Those leads, however, are still narrow, and each candidate still has different factors going in their favor.

Warnock, an incumbent senator with solid approval ratings in-state, has benefited from a deluge of scandals Walker has faced, including allegations of domestic violence and claims that he paid for two women’s abortions. (Walker has denied that he paid for the abortions.)

University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock also theorized that Republicans could see declines in turnout because Gov. Brian Kemp, who won most Republicans and many independents, would no longer be at the top of the ticket.

Walker, meanwhile, is a well-known football star in the state and is likely getting a boost from Georgia’s Republican lean and backlash people may be experiencing toward the Biden administration over issues like inflation.

What are the unique challenges of a runoff?

The biggest challenge posed by a runoff is typically getting voters to head to the polls for a second time.

“Both sides risk heavy attrition of their November voters, and the side that does the best job reminding voters to return to the polls will likely be the one that wins,” Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie told Vox.

According to Bullock, Georgia has seen anywhere between a 10 to 40 percent drop-off in voter participation in past runoffs. The 2021 elections were a best-case scenario: Roughly 10 percent fewer voters participated in those relative to the general election that year.

Prior to 2021, runoffs had favored Republicans because they were able to turn more of their voters out, per FiveThirtyEight. That dynamic, however, shifted that year, with Democrats seeing gains among their voters.

This year, it’s still unclear which party will be more successful, though both have invested heavily in the election. According to NBC News, Democrats have thus far outspent Republicans on ads, pouring in $17 million to the GOP’s $5 million.

Organizers including the New Georgia Project Action Fund have also been canvassing heavily on the ground, with upward of 400 canvassers using everything from text and phone banking to more traditional door-knocking to reach voters.

“At this point, it’s really a turnout game. We are focused on voter education. We’ve been knocking on people’s doors since March, so they are very familiar with us,” says James Mays, a field director with the New Georgia Project Action Fund.

What are the stakes of this election?

Unlike 2020, Senate control is not up for grabs since Democrats have already won the majority.

That doesn’t mean this election isn’t still extremely important. As Vox’s Ellen Ioanes explained, there’s a lot at stake if Democrats are able to pick up a 51st seat:

If Warnock keeps his seat, Democrats won’t have to depend on Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie-breaking vote, and they would have more leverage over Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), the more conservative members of the party, in order to get legislation passed.

With 51 votes, Democrats would have solid majorities on congressional committees, which are currently split down the middle. That would give them the power to confirm judicial nominees more quickly and swiftly approve measures that could be contentious. Any gains Democrats make this cycle could also help blunt potential losses they might face in 2024, when the Senate map will be much less favorable to the party.

Beyond the balance of power in the Senate, organizers also note that this election sends a message about the values and issues that Georgia stands for. Recently, for instance, Walker used an anti-trans ad describing how trans athletes should be barred from sports competitions, to try to make the case for his candidacy.

“What we’re asking people to say, to make a choice about the kind of Georgia they want to live in, the kind of representation they want in the Senate and the direction that they want the United States to go in,” says Keron Blair, the chief of field and organizing at the New Georgia Project Action Fund.