Atlanta, Dec 14 (efe-epa).- The election process where voters will select the two senators for Georgia, and which will determine whether the Democrats or the Republicans will control the upper house of Congress, kicked off on Monday with the start of early voting amid a controversy over the reduction by state authorities of the number of voting centers, a measure that several organizations say could negatively affect the Hispanic and African American vote, both of which are vital in Democrat victory calculations.
In these crucial runoff elections, which will be held for in-person voting on Jan. 5, 2021, the Democratic candidates – journalist Jon Ossoff and African American Rev. Raphael Warnock – are seeking to wrest the Senate seats from Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively.
The Democrats would need to win both races to take back control of the Senate from the Republicans. Then, both parties would have 50 senators, but incoming Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris – as president of the Senate – could break any tie in favor of the Democrats.
The first polling places opened at 7 am on Monday and at several of them lines had been forming since much earlier, like at the State Farm Arena, where the Atlanta Hawks – the city’s pro basketball team – play in downtown Atlanta and one of the biggest sites in the state established for voting.
For this early voting period, which will last for three weeks, a heavy turnout is expected because control of the US Senate in Washington is in play. But some of Georgia’s most populous counties have reduced the number of sites where people can deposit their ballots, especially in minority communities, according to civil rights defense groups.
One of those counties is Cobb County, with the third largest population in the state (760,000 residents) and which significantly reduced the number of its voting sites compared to what had been the case for the general election on Nov. 3, cutting the number of its voting places from 11 to five using the argument that there are not enough personnel to man all 11 sites.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, among other organizations, warned that the reduced number of voting centers will probably have a negative impact on many voters in Cobb County, especially blacks and Latinos.
In the face of the deluge of criticism, Cobb County announced at the last minute that it would set up two more sites during the last week of early voting.
Another county that reduced the number of its voting centers was Hall County, where the city of Gainesville is located, the so-called “Chicken Capital of the World” with poultry processing employing thousands of Hispanics. The county, however, cut in half the number of voting sites – from eight to four – along with Forsyth County, which opened only five of the 11 sites it had operated for the general election.
The early voting period got under way during the same week that President-elect Joe Biden is scheduled to accompany the Democratic Senate candidates at a campaign event in Atlanta on his first visit to Georgia since he won the presidency.
On Monday, in fact, states are casting their electoral votes in the Electoral College to ratify the former vice president’s victory over President Donald Trump in the presidential election.
Given the resurgence in coronavirus cases in Georgia, more than 1.2 million voters have requested absentee ballots for these Senate runoffs so that they can vote by mail or deposit their ballots in special boxes established at different points throughout the state. That 1.2 million figure is similar to the number of people who requested absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election, possibly indicating that turnout for these runoffs may equal, or exceed, the turnout last November.
According to Stacey Abrams – who heads Fair Fight, the organization she founded two years ago after losing the Georgia gubernatorial election to Republican Brian Kemp and one of the key figures in Biden’s victory in this state – of these 1.2 million, there are 85,000 voters who did not participate in the November election and who are “young and of color,” a key demographic group for Democrats.
Voter surveys suggest a pair of tight elections, as in November, when Biden beat Trump by a narrow margin of less than 12,000 votes in the state, thereby becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since the 1990s, when Bill Clinton did so.