Georgia Senate elections: why are they a big deal and when will we have results?

Tom McCarthy
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

More than 81 million Americans voted last November to install Joe Biden as president. But the fate of the Biden presidency could come down to a pair of runoff US Senate elections happening in the state of Georgia this Tuesday.

Control of the US Senate is on the line. If the Democrats win both races, the president-elect will gain a big opportunity to build a progressive legacy. If Democrats lose one or both races, the country will enter at least a two-year period of divided government, with the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, retaining power and likely frustrating Biden’s agenda.

Related: Republicans divided: Trump creates new splits as party frets about Georgia

Why is it such a big deal?

If Democrats win both races, the Senate would be split 50/50, but Democrats would effectively control the body with Kamala Harris, the vice-president-elect, in her role as president of the Senate, breaking any ties in a strict party-line vote.

Who’s running?

The Republican candidates include one sitting senator – the wealthy appointee Kelly Loeffler, 50 – and one senator whose term has just ended, David Perdue, 71.

Challenging the Republicans are fresh faces on the Democratic side. Documentary filmmaker Jon Ossoff, 33, a former congressional staffer and failed House candidate, is running to replace Perdue, while Atlanta pastor and first-time candidate the Rev Raphael Warnock, 51, is running to unseat Loeffler.

The runoff races are being held in accordance with state election laws because no candidate in either race won 50% of the vote in the November elections.

Why does the Senate matter?

Control of the senate would give Biden his best shot at signing major new legislation on key issues such as the climate emergency, immigration, voting rights, poverty and racial justice. But even two Democratic victories in Georgia would not mean that Biden could easily implement a progressive legislative agenda, because centrist Democrats in the Senate might break with the party in close votes.

A Democratic victory in Georgia would also represent a rebuke of Donald Trump and further vindicate activists and organizers who have worked to turn out Democrat voters and make Georgia a battleground state. Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1992.

What’s Trump’s role?

The president is a wild card in the Georgia races. So far his main role has been to attack the integrity of the vote and spread conspiracy theories about the election on Twitter.

State Republicans fretted that the release on Sunday of an audio recording of an hour-long conversation in which Trump pressured Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensberger, a Republican, to overturn the presidential election result could both discourage Trump loyalists from voting, because Trump says the game is rigged; and put moderates off Trump and the Republican brand.

But an 11th-hour rally by Trump in Georgia on Monday night ensured that the president and his message would be center stage on election day.

Who’s ahead?

We don’t know. With faith in pollsters badly damaged, political analysts are looking at early voting numbers, mail-in voting and first-time voter totals to try to figure out what’s going on. A record 3 million people participated in early voting, which began on 14 December, generally taken to be a good sign for the Democrats. As many as 100,000 of those voters were first-time voters – also thought to be a good sign for Democrats looking to expand the state electorate beyond its traditional Republican roots.

But Republicans say their voters are alert to the stakes and gearing up for big election-day turnout. Republicans in the past have generally been better at turning out voters in off-year and runoff elections.

When do polls close?

Polling places are open from 7am ET until 7pm ET. But with anyone in line by 7pm allowed to cast a ballot, voting could go much later.

When will we have results?

As with the November election, early voting does not necessarily translate to early results. By state law, ballot counting cannot start until polls close at 7pm. Military and overseas ballots arriving as late as Friday could be counted.

That means results could take days, election officials say. The November election in Georgia was extremely close, with Biden’s victory in the state not projected by television networks until 10 days post-election.

Analysts warn that another dynamic of the November election, the so-called “red mirage”, could repeat itself this week, with Republicans appearing in the lead on the strength of election day returns, only to lose ground as mail-in and absentee ballots are counted.

How will the winners be announced?

The process will be familiar from the November election. After polling stations close, precinct- and county-level returns will begin to come in. Media organizations will make projections and announce winners as soon as possible.

If the Democrats lose, they may issue statements of concession, while given the trend of national politics, the Republican candidates might not concede if they lose, preferring to feed corrosive false claims of voter fraud. Ultimately the state will certify its election result and send two senators to Washington.

And then it will be over?

No one expects Republicans to accept the election results. If Loeffler and/or Perdue loses, expect a multi-front fight in courts, in the media and in the state capitol, akin to the fight Trump has waged after his November loss.

The scope and anti-democratic stink of that fight was revealed most recently with the release of the transcript by the Washington Post at the weekend of the call between Trump and Raffensberger. “We believe that we do have an accurate election,” Raffensberger ultimately told Trump.

“No, no you don’t. No, no you don’t,” insisted the president. “You don’t have. Not even close. You’re off by hundreds of thousands of votes.”