Published: 30th December 2020 (2 Min Read)

It would be surprising if during this Christmas season Joe Biden did not have “Georgia on my mind”. As the lyrics of the song repeat, “Still in peaceful dreams I see, the road leads back to you”

The Democratic Party won the state of Georgia for the first time in a presidential election for nearly thirty years, with a majority of just under 12,000 votes.

The balance of Congress, and so the future US legislative agenda, depends entirely upon the outcome of the “runoff” elections on 5th January for the two seats allocated to Georgia in the Senate. The cynical machinations this week of Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, serve as a timely reminder of this.[i]

Runoff elections are held when no candidate has won the required majority of votes.[ii] In this case no candidate in Georgia attained the required 50% of the vote on 3rd November.

At present the Senate is controlled by the Republican Party with 50 seats to the Democrats’ 48, so Democrats need to win both races. If they do, the Senate would be tied 50-50.

A key constitutional role of the US Vice-President is to exercise the casting vote in the event of a tied vote on any legislation. Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris, would have this responsibility in her role as President of the Senate after her inauguration on 20th January.

According to polling averages as of 29th December both races are incredibly close.[iii]

Tight margins mean that turnout is going to be vital, and Georgians know it. 2.34 million people had already voted by 28th December — more than the total in any previous runoff election. There are still seven days of voting to go.

In the November election just under 5 million Georgians voted, which was a record and nearly 1 million more than in 2016. The architect of this is considered to be Stacey Abrams, the first African-American woman to run for governor. She lost that race narrowly in 2018, and since then has led a grassroots voter-registration movement, which has enabled hundreds of thousands of new voter registrations in recent years.[iv]

At an event at Chatham House in 2019, Ms Abrams explained how the workings of voter suppression make it harder for minorities to cast their votes. “Voter suppression is real. Voter suppression is insidious, but it is also seamless, because, typically, what happens is that we are taught to believe that a person can’t vote because they made a mistake, as opposed to the fact that the system is designed to deny them agency and access.”

Georgia has one of the strictest voter ID laws in the US. An ‘exact match’ screening process means that registrations and ballots are not accepted if they don’t precisely – down to accents, hyphens and even typos – match the records. A process that disproportionately flags up people of colour.

When he was Secretary of State for Georgia, the current Governor, Brian Kemp, oversaw a purge of 1.4 million registrations and the closing of 200 voting stations, largely in low-income or rural communities. Leading up to the election, the state put 53,000 voter registrations on hold due to non-match. Black voters made up 70 per cent of the frozen registrations.

In addition to the surge in new, valid, electoral registrations, Republicans worry that President Trump’s constant unfounded talk of electoral fraud and rigged ballots may discourage some of his supporters from participating.

Democrats meanwhile are hammering home the message to their supporters that the success of the incoming Biden presidency may hinge on being able to pass legislation quickly and cleanly through both chambers of Congress — making these Senate races vitally important.

Republicans appear to be ahead, but turnout, enthusiasm and momentum could favour the Democrats, and Georgia was one of the biggest surprises on election night in November. How many unexpected voters will emerge this time?