The Real Story Behind Georgia’s Record-Breaking Runoff Turnout

Forget about conventional wisdom. The Georgia runoff is anything but typical.

Kristle Chester
Dec 24, 2020 · 9 min read
Georgia Senate Runoffs are still a giant question mark even with record-breaking turnout.
Georgia Senate Runoffs are still a giant question mark even with record-breaking turnout.
Author provided image.

When Georgia polls opened on December 14, every political rubbernecker in the country held their breath. Conventional wisdom enforced by sixty-four years of Georgia runoffs suggested a low turnout election. High propensity voters — the folks who vote rain or shine in every election — would choose Georgia’s senators. In Georgia, these voters are older whites and currently trend Republican.

Then Richmond County shattered expectations along with the single-day early voting record they set during the November 2020 election. At 57.7% black, Richmond County, better known as Augusta, Georgia, is a minority-majority city. In November 2020, Biden won it with 67.95% of the vote. A similar scene played out in Gwinnett County.

This time around, conventional wisdom is an idiot.

How high is voter turnout?

There’s a lot of noise about Georgia’s runoff turnout. Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vox, Reuters, everybody and their brother has a piece about how we’ve cast over 1.4 million votes. While this is an astronomical number for any election and unheard of during a Georgia runoff, they all miss the real story buried in Georgia’s Absentee Files.

In their defense, we’re talking about 159 county-level voter files with an individual row for each person who applied for an absentee ballot or attempted to vote in-person during early voting. This is not a spreadsheet-friendly dataset. It requires python, R, or SPSS. (I used R.) Perhaps, their deadlines favored practicality over curiosity.

Plus, the state-level story is interesting.

The Macro View

As of December 23, ten days into early voting, Georgia’s counties have accepted 2,062,865 in-person, absentee, and electronic ballots. At the same point during November’s early voting, we were at 2,187,862. That’s a 5.71% decrease in overall turnout.

Compare this with our 2008 senate runoff between Saxby Chambliss and Jim Martin. In that race, turnout dropped 43.03% overall, which is typical for a Georgia runoff.

Keep in mind that 5.71% decrease includes returned absentee ballots. Right now, absentee ballot applications are down 22.24% statewide. Returns are down 18.4% compared to the same point in the November 2020 election. While this suggests that some November absentee voters opted to vote in-person this time, we shouldn’t make too much fuss over absentee ballot returns yet. Here’s why.

As you can see from the image below, Houston County issued my ballot 46 days before each election.

Author’s absentee ballot status for November 3, 2020 election and January 5, 2021 runoff
Author’s absentee ballot status for November 3, 2020 election and January 5, 2021 runoff
Author’s Actual Absentee Ballot Status

I received my November ballot on September 24 and my runoff ballot on November 30. It took an extra four days before it arrived in my mailbox. This time of year, we all expect delays. Right now, ballots are competing with holiday mail.

During the first ten days of early voting, turnout grew 2.9% statewide over the November general election, which also saw record-breaking early voting. That’s insane for any election, especially a runoff.

Take that conventional wisdom about habitual voters and throw it out the window. This is not an average Georgia runoff.

What do those monster numbers really mean?

In Clinch County, Georgia, Trump steamrolled Biden, winning an impressive 73.5% of the vote. It sounds excellent for Team Trump, except for one tiny detail. Clinch County voters only cast 2,864 votes. Go to Augusta, Atlanta, or Gainesville. There, a single precinct will have more assigned voters than Clinch County’s entire population.

In November 2020, Biden won 30 counties while 129 voted for Trump. Biden won because more people voted for him, particularly in the major population centers.

By definition, counties are land, not people. These numbers mean that Republicans have to cover more ground than Democrats to gain the same number of votes.

Given the tight margin seen in the Trump-Biden race, we expect close runoffs. If a dozen rural counties don’t show up, Republicans are in dire straights. By the same token, if one metro area stays home, Democrats lose their shirts.

As of December 22, 2020, in-person early voting turnout in Democratic counties is 5.63% higher than at the same point during the general election. Republican counties are down by 0.13%. So far, voters cast 111,991 more ballots in counties won by Biden than in Trump country. The gap between these counties grows larger with each passing day.

During early voting (12/23), Georgia’s Democratic counties cast more early in-person votes than Republican ones.
During early voting (12/23), Georgia’s Democratic counties cast more early in-person votes than Republican ones.
Author provided image.

Adding in accepted returned absentee ballots more than doubles this gap.

During early voting (12/23), Democratic counties lead Republican counties by over 200,000 ballots.
During early voting (12/23), Democratic counties lead Republican counties by over 200,000 ballots.
Author provided image.

What’s happening here is that some counties did not experience record-breaking turnout. In fact, during the first week of early voting, it dropped by 10% or more in thirty counties.

Counties where early voting turnout dropped 10% during the Georgia Senate runoffs during the first week.
Counties where early voting turnout dropped 10% during the Georgia Senate runoffs during the first week.
Author provided image.

Twenty-nine of these voted for Trump. Their turnout decreased by 16.76%. During the same period, Cobb County, a slightly swingy Atlanta suburb that went for Biden, was only down by 11.74%.

Before the runoff, Cobb County and Hall County slashed their early voting locations. As expected, their turnout slumped. However, Georgia counties run their own elections. Hall County’s decision cannot affect turnout in Polk County, where week one turnout dropped 37.3%, or McDuffie, which fell 26.2%.

When the polls closed on December 23 for the Christmas holidays, Republican counties lagged Democratic counties by 249,349 accepted absentee and in-person ballots and counting. Why are reliably red counties like Polk County seeing an enormous drop in turnout compared with similarly sized Democratic ones like Newton that are surging? Is the recent spike in COVID cases an adequate explanation, or is something else going on?

COVID is part of our day-to-day reality. Twenty of the twenty-nine Republican counties are simultaneously experiencing drops in voter turnout and COVID spikes. That includes heavily Republican Hall County, where week one early voting turnout fell by 28%.

However, I live in a state filled with mask-less idiots. My unscientific observation, which consists solely of people watching at Walmart from my car, suggests that mask-less idiots are predominately white men. A few still have Trump flags flying from the bed of their pickup trucks. A couple of months ago, when these people greeted Trump’s plane at the Macon Airport, Vernon Jones went crowd-surfing. There wasn’t a mask in sight. So do I think an increase in COVID cases is harming turnout in these counties? No.

I think Trump’s voter fraud narrative motivated Democrats more than Republicans.

How Trump’s stolen election narrative motivates Democrats

For the last six weeks, the state and national GOP have systematically attacked our election result. What began on November 4 with cries to stop the count culminated in:

• six major lawsuits,

• a hand count audit,

• a machine recount, and

• two bizarre Giuliani hearings — one pre-COVID diagnosis and one after.

Lin Wood made headlines with cases filed in Fulton County and US District Court. Sidney Powell slapped us with a so-called Kraken suit. Lindsey Graham called our secretary of state and suggested that he find an excuse to throw out legally cast absentee ballots. Graham’s call was “criminal solicitation to commit election fraud;” it’s a felony.

All the while, Trump bombarded us with tweets about rigged and stolen elections. On December 5, 2020, he even graced us with his presence at a rally in Valdosta. He repeated his stolen election claims during this event and made bizarre comments about being “the only person who likes cucumbers.”

Throughout these shenanigans, senior members of Georgia’s GOP toed Trump’s line. Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue led the pack by refusing to acknowledge Trump’s loss and stoking tensions during campaign rallies. David Shaffer, the chairman of the Georgia GOP and District 48 Senator, was apparently so moved by Trump’s arguments that he joined Trump v. Raffensperger as a plaintiff. Eight members of Georgia’s GOP congressional delegation even wrote a letter about “voter irregularities” addressed to the “George Secretary of State.” That’s not a typo. They misspelled the name of the state they represent.

In another state, perhaps these actions would motivate Republican voters more than Democrats. But this is Georgia.

Here politics and racism go hand in hand. Just look at Georgia’s current state flag, adopted in 2003. Contrary to popular belief, the thirteen stars surrounding Georgia’s state seal do not symbolize its status as one of the thirteen colonies. We know this because this flag has another name — the Stars and Bars. From November 28, 1861 to May 1, 1863, it was the Confederacy’s official flag. I repeat, Georgians voted for this flag in 2003.

Georgia also has a long and sordid history of voter suppression. The same 1964 law that created the runoff system still in use included a literacy test that I can’t pass without Google. A twenty-one-year-old in 1964 is seventy-seven today. The people targeted by voter suppression laws are very much alive and voting, so are the people who supported it.

When a group of politicians alleges that “eligible voters (were) denied the opportunity to vote” (GOP Congressional Delegation Letter to Secretary Raffensperger [November 10, 2020]), it is not hypothetical. They ripped this accusation straight out of a Georgia history textbook.

When these same politicians support lawsuits targeting Chatham and Fulton counties, i.e., Savannah and Atlanta, every voter in Georgia understands the racial subtext.

Chatham county is 41.2% black; Fulton is 44.5%. When these attorneys talk about signature verification and illegal votes, they mean ballots cast by black voters. Georgians were not born under a rock. No one says it aloud because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but we all get the message.

In addition to these racially motivated attacks, Trump and his surrogates have also accused every voter who cast an absentee ballot in Georgia of fraud, not once but so many times we lost count. For the record, that’s over 1.3 million Georgians, including 451,157 who voted for Trump.

For Biden voters, the runoffs are not about the senate anymore. It’s about whether they feel attacked. The numbers say they do.

Why Republicans are less motivated

In the weeks following the general election, infighting broke out between senior GOP state-level officials, the state GOP, and the national GOP. The AJC — Atlanta’s major newspaper — called it the “GOP Civil War.” Meanwhile, Lin Wood called for voters to boycott the runoffs. Sidney Powell, Trump’s other “star” attorney, amplified his cry.

As a result, Republican voter confidence slipped. In a recent poll, 20% of Georgia Republicans said they had “no confidence” in the runoff’s count accuracy. As Kyle Huneycutt, a Georgia Trump voter, put it in an interview with VOA:

I think the presidential election was rigged. And I have very little confidence in Georgia’s capacity to conduct a fair and accurate election in January, either.

The voter fraud narrative is undermining voter confidence among Republicans. Some feel like their votes don’t count and that there’s no point in voting in a pre-determined election.

Democrats know how to take these narratives and use them to motivate voter turnout, particularly in minority communities. Republicans don’t, and it shows.

Will these trends reverse themselves?

During a typical election, Democrats bank most of their early votes during the first week. Republicans catch up towards the end. However, this analysis is not comparing current turnout to the general election’s overall turnout. It is about where each county stands ten days after early voting began for the runoff versus ten days after early voting started for the general election. If a county has low voter turnout compared to the same point during the last election, whichever party won that county should worry.

Over the coming week, these counties may catch up. While I fully expect Republican areas will experience a surge after Christmas, expectations are not ballots. Right now, Democratic-leaning counties are outperforming Republican-leaning counties. Due to the holidays, we have sixteen days of early voting, not nineteen. No one knows if this trend will hold through election day.

All we know is that turnout looks more like a general election than a runoff. So far, conventional wisdom is wrong.

Data sources:

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Kristle Chester

Written by

Freelancer. Data geek. Gardener. Baker. Spaniel lover. Georgian. MA International Commerce and Policy.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

Kristle Chester

Written by

Freelancer. Data geek. Gardener. Baker. Spaniel lover. Georgian. MA International Commerce and Policy.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

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