A judge in Georgia on Friday ruled to allow early voting on November 26 in the state’s US Senate runoff election.
In a written ruling, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cox said that after he “considered the moving papers, arguments of counsel, and references to legal authority,” he determined that Georgia law did not prohibit from keeping the polls open the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
The decision was in favor of Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who faces Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a December 6 runoff. Warnock’s campaign had spearheaded the Democratic lawsuit challenging state guidance barring voting on that day.
State election officials had argued in a hearing earlier Friday that early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving was not allowed because it violated state law prohibiting voting on Saturday if there is a state holiday on the Thursday or Friday before.
“The Court finds that the absence of the Saturday vote will irreparably harm the Plaintiffs, their members, and constituents, and their preferred runoff candidate,” Cox wrote in the conclusion of his decision.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, disagreed with the judge’s decision.
“We disagree with the court’s order and look forward to a prompt appeal,” his office said in a statement.
Earlier Friday, Cox acknowledged that “time was of the essence.” Over the course of the 90-minute hearing, the judge asked questions of both sides, but he gave little hint as to how he was leaning on the case.
The lawsuit was brought earlier this week by Warnock’s campaign, joined by the Georgia Democratic Party and Democrats’ Senate campaign arm, after Raffensperger’s office issued guidance barring counties from offering early voting the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
State election officials pointed to part of the election code that bars early voting on Saturday when there is a state holiday the Thursday or Friday before. Democrats contended that provision does not apply to runoff elections. They have pointed to comments made by state officials earlier this month suggesting counties could off early voting on that Saturday, as well as how it was offered the Saturday after Christmas in 2020.
“This last-minute reversal is not just wrong on the law, but it also implicates a fundamental right in our democracy,” Uzoma Nkwonta, a lawyer for the Democrats, said at Friday’s hearing.
Charlene McGowan, a Georgia assistant attorney general who defended the state officials’ interpretation of the law, said the law had changed since 2020. She said it was an “unfortunate turn of events” that the calendar fell in a way that would not allow counties to offer early voting on that Saturday, but that the court’s job was not to decide the best policy, as that determination was left to the legislature.
Cox’s questions included queries about what legal weight he should give the comments from the state officials previously indicating that counties could make early voting available on November 26. He also asked whether the state’s policy could be seen as a “reasonable” interpretation of the law. The Democrats’ lawyer argued it was not, while Georgia’s attorney said it was both the reasonable and “clear” interpretation of the statute.
“No one’s right to vote is being denied here,” McGowan said.
The prohibition on early voting on Saturdays that fall after a Thursday or Friday state holiday stems from legislation passed in 2016. In 2021, the Republican-led state legislature significantly reduced the runoff period, and it will end this year on December 6.
In addition to Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday, Georgia also observes a state holiday on Friday.
This headline and story have been updated with additional developments Friday.