MARIETTA, Georgia: Hundreds of people lined up in a cold rain on Monday (Dec 14) to cast ballots in a pair of US Senate races in Georgia that will determine control of the chamber and heavily influence Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's ability to enact his agenda.
Election experts said turnout on the first day of early voting in a contest that ends on Jan 5 could offer clues to which side ultimately prevails: Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, or their respective Democratic challengers: Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
"On the first day of early voting during the general election, there were people lined up long before the polls opened. If we see something like that, I think that would bode well for the Democrats," said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who administers the US Elections Project.
Each side has made the race about Senate control and the success of Biden's priorities, with Republicans warning voters that President Donald Trump's policies are on the line and Democrats warning that healthcare coverage and coronavirus relief hang in the balance.
"I should have expected long lines; this race is a big deal. The world is watching us," said James Crawford, 54, a Democrat and retired Navy sailor who was near the front of a line of hundreds outside a polling place in his hometown of Marietta, Georgia, 32km northwest of Atlanta. "This will affect whether Biden can get anything done, his ability to run the government."
Republicans could have the advantage in a state their party has long dominated. But Biden's narrow victory there over Trump last month has buoyed Democratic hopes of another win, aided by aggressive Democratic voter registration drives and demographic trends that have nudged the electorate away from Republicans.
"We can't let Biden and the Democrats have total control of Washington, who knows what kind of radical thing they'll do," said Norman Johnson, a 53-year-old Republican engineer, also voting in Marietta.
Perdue on Sunday said the contest was all about voter turnout. He finished just ahead of Ossoff in November, while not quite getting the 50 per cent needed for a victory under Georgia law.
"If we get our vote out, we'll be able to hold the line here in Georgia," Perdue said on Fox News' "Sunday Morning Futures".
But Georgia Democratic activist Stacey Abrams told CNN's "State of the Union" that this was "the first runoff where we (Democrats) have the level of investment and engagement that it takes to win a runoff."
Abrams, who lost a race for Georgia governor in 2018, said 1.2 million absentee ballots have been requested thus far. In the November general election, 1.78 million absentee ballots were requested and 1.32 million were returned and accepted, according to the US Elections Project.
She said 85,000 of those applications are from voters who did not vote in the general election, and they are disproportionately young and people of colour.
Democrats are depending on voters of colour, young people and college-educated whites to turn out for them in urban and suburban communities, especially in the Atlanta area, while Republicans need Trump supporters in outlying areas of the state.
More than 246,000 Georgians have already voted by mail, according to McDonald's findings, raising expectations for a mammoth runoff turnout of between 3.5 million and 4 million voters. Just over 5 million people voted in the general election, about 1.3 million by absentee ballot.
But both sides face challenges getting voters to the polls without Trump on the ballot in a campaign marked by political turmoil, a surging coronavirus pandemic and the threat of winter weather in a region where ice and snow can paralyse travel.
The showdown has also spawned court battles involving the state's removal of nearly 200,000 people from voter registration rolls, and a Republican Party effort to curb the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots.
Republican infighting over Trump's unsubstantiated claims of election fraud could lead some of the president's most ardent supporters to stay home in protest.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have both visited Georgia to warn supporters that failure to vote could mean Democratic rule in Washington. Two Democratic wins would produce a 50-50 party breakdown in the Senate. That would give Democrats control because Kamala Harris could cast tiebreaking votes as vice president. Democrats already run the House of Representatives.
Biden is expected to visit Atlanta on Tuesday to urge supporters to see votes for Warnock and Ossoff as a way to ensure quick action on coronavirus relief for struggling families.
Monday's early voting coincides with an Electoral College vote that would make Biden's victory over Trump official.