(Bloomberg) — The high-stakes Jan. 5 Senate runoffs in Georgia are expected to play out a lot like November’s presidential election — with the result delayed for days, or weeks, as near-record numbers of votes are counted.
In the Nov. 3 contest, the results were so close that it took 10 days before television networks projected that Democrat Joe Biden won Georgia. The state didn’t certify his victory for another week, and it was certified twice more, lastly on Dec. 7.
With the runoff elections expected to be similarly tight, the results are likely to be slow again, leaving control of the U.S. Senate in doubt well into next month.
“Almost no chance it’s called on election night,” said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University.
Adding to the drama, just as in November, the first returns coming in on election night are likely to favor Republicans, with Democrats gaining ground as mail-in and absentee ballots are counted in subsequent days.
Voters cast their ballots in Norcross, Georgia, on Nov. 3.
Photographer: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
“And then here comes the lawyers on horseback,” predicted Rick Dent, a political consultant who worked for the late Zell Miller, the last Democratic Senator from Georgia.
The unusual dual run-off pits GOP Senator David Perdue against Democrat Jon Ossoff, and Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler against Democrat Raphael Warnock, after none of the candidates got more than 50% of the vote in the Nov 3 general election.
The outcomes are critical to deciding whether the Senate will be split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans — leaving Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris able to cast tie-breaking votes — or the GOP will stay in command of the Senate. And that outcome is critical to Biden’s ability to enact his legislative agenda in the first two years of his term.
The Democrats plan to fight to the end. Harris will travel to Savannah to campaign on behalf of Ossoff and Warnock on Sunday, while Biden will do the same in Atlanta on Monday.
President Donald Trump’s continuing unfounded claims of voter fraud in Georgia and elsewhere appears to have inspired Perdue to set the stage for post-election challenges.
“No matter what shenanigans they did in November, we know what they were up to, and now we’re watching,” Perdue told a rally on Tuesday. “And we’re going to do everything we can to make this election in January clear, transparent and fair.”
Congress Goes On
The new Congress begins Sunday and the already finalized Nov. 3 races give Republicans 50 seats to Democrats’ 48. On that day, Perdue’s current term expires and his seat will stay vacant until the winner of his showdown with Ossoff is decided.
Loeffler is serving out an unfinished term of former Senator Johnny Isakson, so she can continue to work, uninterrupted, even if a winner in her contest against Warnock is not yet certified.
The high stakes are reflected in an early voting turnout that has already reached more than 2.3 million, according to latest numbers from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, including more than 802,000 returned absentee ballots, and more than 1.5 million people voting in-person.
One official said Tuesday the state hopes counties will have processed all the absentee ballots they receive up to Jan. 5, so that all they need to process on Election Day will be what arrives that day before 7 p.m.
But the official, who asked not to be identified to speak freely, said that most counties had counted all their absentee ballots before the general election on Nov. 3, and it still took days to process the last-minute arrivals.
Swint said that counting process “will probably be at least a few days, and then very likely court challenges after that.”
“The process will follow whatever course the process must take,” Ossoff said Tuesday when asked about potential lawsuits and challenges. But he added, “We will see how the process unfolds to make sure every ballot is counted.”
He accused the GOP of already filing lawsuits “trying to move folks who have recently registered to provisional status. They’re trying to purge the rolls. They’re trying to remove drop-boxes where people can submit their absentee ballots. And again, this is an effort to disenfranchise black voters in Georgia.”
The expected lack of clarity has at least one of the four senate campaigns quietly considering holding no event on Election Night, at all.
Dent warned, “It’s going to be the election that never ends.”