Two months after the November elections, Georgia voters have unfinished business – and the outcome will determine control of the US Senate and how lawmakers deal with a new White House.
So why is this happening so soon after the presidential race?
Neither of the major candidates in the two Georgia Senate races got enough votes on November 3 to win outright.
Georgia is one of seven states – along with Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas – where runoffs are required if a single candidate does not get at least one vote beyond a 50 per cent threshold in the vote count.
If that doesn’t happen, races get forced into a runoff between the top two finishers.
As a result, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are trying to cause an upset against the Trump-backed Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, in the once reliably Republican state.
In November, Perdue finished 88,000 votes ahead of Ossoff but fell just short of a majority with 49.7 per cent of the vote in a three-way race that included Libertarian Shane Hazel.
A runoff was virtually assured in the special election for Loeffler’s seat.
Because she was running to complete her predecessor’s unfinished term, state law requires a political free-for-all with multiple Republicans and Democrats sharing the ballot.
Loeffler and Warnock were the top finishers out of 20 candidates, with neither getting more than one-third of the vote.
Why wait until 2021 to resolve those races?
Georgia amended its election laws in 2014 to require nine weeks between general elections and runoffs. The runoff period had been just four weeks.
But that changed after the US Justice Department sued Georgia, arguing military members stationed overseas didn’t have enough time to receive and mail back absentee ballots.
What’s at stake?
In short, a whole lot.
If Republicans lost both races – which looks increasingly likely – the party will lose control of the Senate after six years holding a majority in the chamber.
Victories by both Ossoff and Warnock would leave both parties with 50 seats each and therefore tilt control to Democrats. That’s because Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will serve as the Senate’s presiding officer and will vote as needed to break any ties.
It would be a big win for Biden, as his party would control both houses of Congress and wouldn’t need to deal with a truculent and obstructionist opposition party.
With control of the Senate, his legislative agenda will be able to materialise, which will impact global markets and allies such as Australia. It will also make it much easier for Biden to install who he wants in key positions in the government and his cabinet that require Senate confirmation.
Biden would look to enact an ambitious agenda that includes liberal priorities like raising the minimum wage, approving additional economic stimulus to combat the effects of the pandemic and expanding health care.
Why is it too close to call?
At about 2pm AEDT on Wednesday, and as it got late in Georgia, candidates in each contest were neck-and-neck in the tabulated vote count.
In the early counting many of the votes favouring the Democrats had come from ballots cast before Election Day, while Republicans were performing well in ballots cast the day of the election.
However, there were a large number of outstanding ballots left to be counted in Democratic-leaning and population-dense counties around the city of Atlanta that were still coming in as it approached midnight in Georgia.
At 6pm AEDT, the networks including NBC, CNN, CBS, the New York Times and the Associated Press called one Senate race for Rev. Warnock.
The Republicans are clinging to a one seat majority, for the moment.
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