ATLANTA — What could be the main event in Georgia's two U.S. Senate runoffs — early in-person voting — got underway Monday, with lines trending shorter than during the first days of early voting for the general election.
More than half of the record 5 million votes in the Nov. 3 general election were cast during its three-week early voting period. Early in-person voting could be even more important in the Jan. 5 runoffs because of the short time frame for voters to request and send back ballots by mail, as the two races decide which party will control the U.S. Senate.
No one expects turnout to be as high as Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff try to oust Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively. But Bernard Fraga, an Emory University professor who studies voting, said overall turnout could reach 4 million.
President Donald Trump has relentlessly pushed baseless claims of widespread fraud in the general election. In an overnight tweet just hours before early voting started, he continued his ongoing attack on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, pushing him to take action or risk harming Perdue and Loeffler's chances.
"What a fool Governor @BrianKempGA of Georgia is," the president tweeted. "Could have been so easy, but now we have to do it the hard way. 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."
In contrast to the first day of early voting in October, when more than 125,000 people cast ballots and some people lined up for hours, few long lines were reported Monday.
One question is how many mail-in ballots will be cast in the election. By Friday, 1.2 million mail-in ballots had been requested and 200,000 returned. In the general election, Democrat Joe Biden won 65% of the 1.3 million absentee ballots that were returned in Georgia, a record fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Fraga said it's possible that mail-in ballots, if anything, will be even more favorable for Democrats in the runoff because of attacks on the integrity of mail-in voting by Trump and many Georgia Republicans.
That means early in-person voting, which Trump narrowly won in November, could be even more important for Republicans. Both parties may also drive voters toward the early polls with Christmas and New Year's holidays looming before Jan. 5.
Republican attacks on mail-in voting also worry some Democrats. Meghan Shannon, 36, voted in person for Ossoff and Warnock on Monday at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta partly driven by fears that absentee ballots will be overly scrutinized.
"I think the absentee ballots are going to be questioned when they count the votes," the architect said. "I wanted to be here in person so my vote is counted and it's uncontested."
Melissa McJunkin, 40, voted in Rome, a solidly Republican area in northwest Georgia, and cast her ballot for Perdue and Loeffler, saying they "will help make decisions based on what I think is the right choice." She'd heard allegations of voter fraud in the general election and was a bit worried about the integrity of the vote in the runoff.
"I've never had a problem before now trusting it, but now I feel like there may be something going on that I don't trust," she said.
Towanda Jones voted in downtown Atlanta for Ossoff and Warnock and dismissed the fraud allegations, which have been repeatedly denied by election officials.
"The system is working as it should, and I think our current president is just a sore loser," she said.
The 54-year-old Black hairstylist said police reform was her main priority.
"I have two grown sons," Jones said. "The amount of Black lives that have been lost due to police brutality upset me."
Deborah Harp Gibbs of Lilburn said she voted for Perdue and Loeffler "to keep America great."
Gibbs said it's important for people to acknowledge the United States as a Christian nation. "I want prayer in school and God Bless America and apple pie," Gibbs said, adding that she thinks the Republicans could keep things on "the right track."
Tony Christy, 62, said he was concerned about the balance of power in Washington as he voted in Kennesaw, a conservative-leaning city just northwest of Atlanta, for the two Republicans. If the Democrats win, there will be 50 senators from each party and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would break a tie.
That would give too much power to the Democrats, he said, because "then not only will they have the presidency, but they'll have the House and the Senate, which is not a good balance to have."
But Araya Araya of Lilburn said he voted for Warnock in part to give Biden a chance to get things done.
"I didn't want the Senate to be majority Republican where everything President-elect Biden is preparing to do is going to get blocked," Araya said.
Each of Georgia's 159 counties must offer at least one early voting location during business hours, with many in metro Atlanta offering multiple locations, extended hours and weekend voting. Early voting will continue through Dec. 31 in some places.
Preparation for early voting saw squabbles over cuts to the number of early polling places. The Center for New Data, a nonprofit group, counted 42 early polling sites statewide scheduled to close for the runoff. In some cases, polling places were relocated.