Early voting begins in Georgia with slate of key races on the ballot

(CNN) — Polls for early voting have opened Monday in Georgia, home to a series of critical midterm races for the US Senate, US House and statewide posts from governor to secretary of state.

Georgia’s new elections law allows in-person early voting for parts of the next three weeks — no fewer than 17 days in all — through Election Day on November 8. Poll locations are required to be open on weekdays and at least two Saturdays in the run-up to Election Day — but must be closed on the final weekend and Monday before. An earlier version of the controversial measure had sought to block all Sunday voting, but the version that was enacted by state Republicans last year allows it at the discretion of the counties.

Turnout is expected to top the state’s last midterm figures from 2018 but will likely fall short of 2020, when the presidency was on the line. Joe Biden won the state two years ago, becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee to break through in what had been a GOP stronghold since Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. Two months later, Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated a pair of Republican Senate incumbents in runoff elections to deliver their party a majority in the chamber — and Democrats a governing trifecta in Washington.

But an uneven economy, headlined by inflation and high gas prices, along with the traditional backlash against a first-term president, has endangered Democratic control of Congress. The fate of the Senate, which is split 50-50, could hinge on Warnock’s ability to hold off Republican nominee Herschel Walker in what’s shaping up to be a close race.

In the House, where Republicans only need to flip a handful of seats to retake the majority, the 2nd Congressional District in southwest Georgia is home to perhaps the only competitive partisan race in the Deep South. Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop, who was first elected three decades ago, is facing a challenge from Republican Chris West, for whom House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is hosting a fundraiser in Georgia on Monday. Former Vice President Mike Pence is expended to attend the event, along with officials from the state GOP congressional delegation, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Voting has also begun in key statewide races, beginning with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign for a second term in a rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Kemp has led in polling of the race and will debate Abrams on Monday night.

Additionally, GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is also on the ballot. He is being challenged by state Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democrat, and Libertarian Ted Metz, who ran for governor four years ago.

This will be the first major election held in Georgia since the enactment of the new voting law was passed last year. The law prompted an outcry from civil rights and corporate leaders. Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta in response to the law — which includes a shorter window for voters to request mail-in ballots, new voter identification requirements and a cap on drop boxes during early voting — which critics said was designed to suppress minority turnout following Democrats’ sweep of the presidential and US Senate elections.

Turnout in this year’s primaries in Georgia stayed strong despite the new restrictions. But Democrats remain critical of the law.

Warnock, in his debate with Walker on Friday, said, “There is no question that SB 202 (the new law) makes voting harder — and that is the intent. And the fact that many of our voters are overcoming this hardship doesn’t undermine that reality.”

The election also follows a federal court ruling against a suit filed by Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Abrams after the 2018 election, that had asserted that Georgia’s “exact match” voter registration policy, absentee ballot cancellation practices and registration inaccuracies were unconstitutional and in violation of the Voting Rights Act.