(CN) — Campaign season is finally drawing to a close in Georgia, as polling precincts opened Monday morning for early voters casting ballots to determine the state’s senators in Washington and the balance of power during the Biden administration.
While Georgians receive political mailers and Christmas cards in their mailboxes and set up holiday lights and yard signs, all eyes are on the Peach State and the races that will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.
In the morning, the campaigns pushed get-out-the-vote messages. About 1.2 million Georgians have requested absentee ballots to vote by mail in the pair of runoff elections, down from the approximately 1.4 million requests the Secretary of State’s Office received in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 general election.
None of Georgia’s four Senate candidates earned more than 50% of the vote in the November election that yielded a narrow victory for President-elect Joe Biden. And so, under state law, the top two candidates from each race advanced to a runoff. The early voting period runs from Dec. 14 to 31, with Election Day being held on Jan. 5.
Democrat Jon Ossoff, an investigative documentary filmmaker whose political focus has been on “health, jobs and justice,” announced in an email to reporters he planned a march to the polls in Duluth, a city to the northeast of Atlanta in Gwinnett County.
His opponent, Republican Senator David Perdue, a former CEO who is seeking reelection, released a 30-second ad featuring a clip of President Donald Trump at a recent rally praising Perdue and urging Republicans to vote despite some Trump allies calling on voters to stay home because they are disappointed in the results of the presidential race.
Perdue’s Republican colleague Kelly Loeffler, appointed to her Senate seat last year by GOP Governor Brian Kemp, appeared on “Fox & Friends” to say the runoff elections in Georgia are “the firewall to socialism.”
Meanwhile, Loeffler’s Democratic opponent, the Reverend Raphael Warnock, who leads the church once shepherded by Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted an ad showing him working through a Christmas to-do list that recommended voters “make voting a part of your holiday plans.”
Throughout the campaign, Republican ads have painted Ossoff and Warnock as radical candidates while Warnock’s ads have sought to diffuse the attacks by responding with humor.
The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office expects high turnout among voters but not as many as those who turned out for the general election, according to Gabriel Sterling, voting systems implementation manager for the state.
“On the first day of early voting, it’s kinda like when the iPhone comes out, people want to get the new iPhone at the Apple Store. They’re going to stand in line for a while. … So I anticipate we’ll have some lines on the opening day of early voting,” Sterling said at a press conference Thursday.
The Secretary of State’s Office, headed by Republican Brad Raffensperger, has faced criticism from the GOP senators over ways it has handled the presidential election, which went through a risk-limiting audit and then a recount.
Trump, seething over his loss in the state, tweeted a few minutes after midnight Monday calling Georgia’s Republican governor “a fool.”
“Demand this clown call a Special Session and open up signature verification, NOW. Otherwise, could be a bad day for two GREAT Senators on January 5th,” Trump wrote.
But the signature verification process is an open one, accessible to anyone from the public interested in observing the process, Sterling said at last week’s press conference. He noted only one person in a coastal county had requested to observe the signature verification process in the lead-up to the general election.
Outside the Savannah Civic Center on Monday morning, voters like Tareem Heath lined up to vote by palm trees. Around the corner of the building, people in cars waited to get tested for Covid-19 at a free drive-through testing location.
Heath, 41, who is a pediatric anesthesiologist, donned his Black Lives Matter mask and voted against the Republicans currently holding Georgia’s two Senate seats.
“It is time to get all of Republicans out of office,” he said in an interview.
Mildred McClain, 71, who runs a community-based organization in Savannah, also supported the Democratic candidates. Standing outside the Savannah polling center wearing a white head scarf and white mask, McClain said she voted to be an example to her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“We need change in Georgia and the USA so that people who are vulnerable to all of the things that we’re facing can get some help. So, I want to cast my vote, I want to cast it early, I want to make it count,” McClain said.
Meanwhile, voters exited State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta in a steady trickle Monday morning, carrying small paper cups of complimentary hot chocolate or coffee as they headed back to their cars. Shortly after opening at 8:30 a.m., wait times inside the arena ranged from 30 to 45 minutes. But by 9 a.m., some voters said they waited just five minutes to cast their ballot.
Retired military serviceman and Atlanta contractor Scott Jessem, 50, said his reason for voting Monday was simple: “We need to get ‘Moscow Mitch’ out of the Senate majority seat and put the Democrats in control.”
“The Republicans have been making a mess in Washington. We need to get things back on track,” Jessem said in an interview.
Jessem is confident in Georgia’s elections and praised Secretary of State Raffensperger.
“[He] has done a good job and I give him credit for holding the line and doing what was right in the face of adversity from his own party,” Jessem said.
Gail Adams, a 58-year-old accounting clerk, said her experience voting Monday was positive overall.
“Everybody was friendly, the people were very friendly, helpful. And the line went fast,” she said, adding she waited “maybe five minutes and then got right in and voted.”
Adams cast her ballot for Warnock and Ossoff because of their stances on health care.
“I like Pastor Raphael Warnock. I like where he stood with health care. He and Jon Ossoff seem to want to make things better for us as Americans. I supported Joe Biden and I know this will give him more support in the Senate,” she said.
Courthouse News reporters Lauren Gallet and Kayla Goggin contributed to this report.