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‘Unprecedented’ early vote in Ga.’s 6th District, but what does it mean?

The eye-popping early-voting turnout in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has left local elections officials gasping, although the surge’s effect on Tuesday’s runoff between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff remains uncertain.

More than 140,300 people had cast ballots by the end of the race’s early-voting period Friday, a total that includes both in-person early voters as well as returned absentee-by-mail ballots. That’s a 150 percent increase over the number of people who voted early ahead of the race’s original April 18 special election.

“It is unprecedented for this type of election to see this voter turnout for early voting,” said Richard Barron, the director of registration and elections in Fulton County, where more than 80,500 of those early ballots were cast.

That’s more than one-third of the county’s 216,000-plus registered voters who live in the 6th District, and it is by far the highest turnout among the three metro Atlanta counties — Cobb and DeKalb are the others — that have communities that fall within the district’s boundaries.

But election officials in the other two have also seen a turnout that DeKalb County Elections Director Maxine Daniels called “phenomenal for a special election.” DeKalb by early last week had seen about 25 percent of eligible voters turn out early, and it ended early voting Friday with more than 32,400 ballots cast.

In Cobb, meanwhile, Elections Director Janine Eveler said more than 23 percent of registered voters had been issued ballots during early voting for the runoff, with 27,381 votes cast as of Friday night.

The turnout ahead of the nationally watched race has surprised everyone. While typical turnout during off-year special elections is notoriously low, Georgia’s 6th District special election on April 18 (which decided who was in this month’s runoff) topped 37 percent — nearly 194,000 people voted. That’s a turnout more common for a midterm contest than a special election.

This time, in Round 2, many are expecting easily more than 200,000 voters — with some saying it will go even higher in a district that has about 530,000 registered voters in all.

The question now is how will it affect the final outcome.

In April, Ossoff won more of the early vote — and finished first overall with 48 percent of the vote — but Handel is seen as having won more of her votes on Election Day, as Republican voters likely held back in trying to parse among 11 GOP candidates in the original 18-person race. That’s a scenario not in play this time, with a number of pundits saying the runoff’s early vote indicates that the contest will be close. Polls have indicated the same.

Mark Rountree, the president of Landmark Communications, has predicted an overall turnout of 235,000 to 240,000 voters — with a majority probably having voted early.

“It’s clearly a tossup,” said Rountree, who does polling for Republican candidates but is not working with the Handel campaign. “She will still win Election Day voting, I think it’s fair to say. He will still win early voting. It’s now just up to margins.”

Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson said the early-voting surge represented a very deliberate effort by both candidates.

“With the date of this runoff being in the middle of summer, it definitely was a strategy in both campaigns to turn people out early and not take the risk of them not voting on Election Day,” Johnson said, adding that Ossoff may have a slight advantage in the early vote but Handel would be counting on Republicans who may be dissatisfied with President Donald Trump to still prioritize party affiliation.

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