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Georgia's U.S. Senate general runoff election begins its final weekend of voting

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's the last day of early voting in Georgia for the runoff between Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker. All eyes will be on the results come next week, but the story already unfolding is about turnout. More than a million and a half voters have already cast their ballots before the election concludes on Tuesday. Joining us from Atlanta is WABE's Sam Gringlas. Hey there, Sam.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I feel like every day I wake up and see a new headline about Georgia, my home state, setting all these records for early voting. What does that look like where you are?

GRINGLAS: Well, Monday had the biggest daily turnout of any Georgia early voting day ever - until that record was displaced by Tuesday's turnout.

KELLY: Right.

GRINGLAS: All that voting has meant long lines at some polling places in metro Atlanta. I waited about 2 1/2 hours to vote yesterday at a local library. And while I was waiting, I met Nikki Liverpool, who had a stopwatch going on her phone. And at that point, the line stretched down a city block.

NIKKI LIVERPOOL: Holy crap. When I saw it, I said, you know what? I'm here. I'm just going to do it. I've got a book on tape. There are no words as to how important it is. It's just - you know, one person, one vote. It matters.

GRINGLAS: Some voting locations have had quicker waits, and many counties have these online wait-time trackers. But waiting for an hour or more can be really frustrating or impossible for voters who care for kids or work inflexible hours.

KELLY: Sure. Tell me what people are saying about what is motivating this kind of turnout - all these long lines, these daily voting records.

GRINGLAS: So the secretary of state's office says people's willingness to wait shows that voters are really enthusiastic. But Georgia has a shorter runoff timeline now, and that seems to be affecting when and also how people vote. Brigitte Peck and her daughter Sophie waited two hours to vote on Saturday. Peck says her daughter's absentee ballot - it hadn't arrived by the time she was getting ready to go back to school in Ohio after Thanksgiving, so they went in person instead.

BRIGITTE PECK: There was a sophomore from Michigan who was in front of us with his parents, and there was a senior from Virginia Tech who was behind us with his dad - all of those students saying they were there because this was the only way they were going to get to vote.

GRINGLAS: Republicans passed a new election law making the runoff four weeks compared to nine weeks back in January 2021, when there were more days of early voting and a longer window for absentee ballots. So now you've got voters who are casting their ballots all on the same few days.

KELLY: Got it. What about the campaigns, the candidates themselves? What are they doing to push turnout?

GRINGLAS: Well, November's early vote numbers were also strong, but the overall turnout rate actually dropped since the last midterms, meaning there were voters left on the table, then, who can still be engaged right now. Former President Obama was trying to do that when he rallied with Warnock last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: I know a lot of folks have been voting early over the last few days. That is a good thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

OBAMA: That is an encouraging thing. But - you knew there was a but - plenty of folks haven't voted yet.

GRINGLAS: Walker, meanwhile, has been campaigning with a rotating cast of Republican U.S. senators. Both campaigns recognize they're kind of preaching to the choir at these rallies. Warnock, who is a pastor, had literally said that. So they're urging supporters to talk to their friends and neighbors and get them to the polls.

KELLY: All righty. WABE's Sam Gringlas in Atlanta. Thank you, Sam.

GRINGLAS: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.