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A person casts their vote during Georgia's Senate runoff elections on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP) A person casts their vote during Georgia's Senate runoff elections on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP)

A person casts their vote during Georgia's Senate runoff elections on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman January 5, 2021

If Your Time is short

  • Two Georgia runoff elections Jan. 5 will decide which party controls the Senate.

  • Results will start to appear at some point after the polls close at 7 p.m. 

  • As more ballots are counted, the candidate in the lead may shift.

With the balance of power of the U.S. Senate up in the air, Americans will be watching the results of the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia closely Tuesday.

Everyone — voters, reporters, candidates and political observers — should take lessons learned from past elections, including Nov. 3, about how to watch the results. Some experts have predicted that unofficial results will be known by the morning of Jan. 6, but they caution that close races can take time to count.

President Donald Trump and some of his allies have fueled misinformation about the process of tabulating results following the Nov. 3 election, including in Georgia where Joe Biden won by just under 12,000 votes.

The two Georgia runoff elections will decide which party controls the Senate. Democrat Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide, is facing first-term GOP Sen. David Perdue. Democrat Raphael Warnock, a pastor, is challenging GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to her position a year ago.

Republicans have a slim majority in the Senate. But if Ossoff and Warnock win, the chamber would be split 50-50. That would give the advantage to Democrats, because as vice president, Kamala Harris could break tie votes.

Here’s what we know about how to watch the results, starting at 7 p.m. when polls close.

Where can I follow the results?

Georgia’s secretary of state website includes a link for results, but no results will be posted until after the polls close. Counties can also post their own results on their websites.

Several national and state media outlets including Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution will post results. 

There are three buckets of ballots: those cast absentee, those cast in person at early voting centers, and those cast on election day. Generally, absentee ballots have to be received by elections offices by 7 p.m. on election night in order to be counted (military and overseas ballots postmarked by Tuesday but received by Friday will be counted). Counties have discretion about whether they post the results from any particular bucket first or simultaneously, and that can vary depending upon the size of the election staff in any county and the number of ballots they have to process.

"Counties do vary in how they report their vote, but we do expect absentee by mail and early vote to be reported first in most counties," said Joe Lenski, co-founder and executive vice president of Edison Research.

Under state election rules, counties are allowed to start opening absentee ballots and scanning them the third Monday prior to election day and must begin processing absentee ballots no later than the second Monday before election day. But they can’t actually tabulate and post election results until after polls close.

"Most analysts and our own data support the idea that absentee and early in-person voters will skew Democratic," said Drew McCoy, president of Decision Desk HQ, an election data and analysis service.

Lenski said that, in general, the smaller counties report faster than the larger counties, a trend expected to continue tonight.

Fulton County, the state’s most populous county and the home of Atlanta proper, generally posts early voting results first, then election day and absentee ballots as they are completed, said spokesperson Jessica Corbitt. Usually, the county has its first batch of results around 8 p.m.

"All election day and early voting will be in tonight for sure," Corbitt said. "Some absentee ballots will be in but they will likely still be counting some. They plan to continue counting until at least 2 a.m." (The public can watch a live stream of the absentee ballot processing.)

Can the candidate in the lead shift as the counting continues?

Yes. Early leaders may not be the final winners. The candidate in the lead may shift depending upon which types of ballots are counted first or whether results post later from Democratic or Republican strongholds.

"Georgia is a state that is going to be close, and the closer the results, the more ballots you need to be certain that one person or another wins," said Stephen Fowler, a reporter covering Georgia elections for GPB News.

Whether either of the races can be called will depend on how many ballots are left, and whether they come from areas that lean toward Democrats or Republicans.

That means that when someone looks at results at any given moment or moments, they could spot a big jump in ballots. Following the Nov. 3 election, Trump and some of his supporters made statements about "ballot dumps" that favored Biden. But there is nothing nefarious about the continuous uploading of additional results as they are tabulated, including late at night. 

Changes in leads are normal, McCoy said. 

"They are simply an artifact of the process of discovering the result that already exists," he said. "Some areas count faster than others and those areas may have different political leanings than the votes that take longer to count in another area that leans the other way."

It’s also possible that mistakes will occur during the process of tabulating results, but an error is not the equivalent of fraud.

"Georgia has 159 counties, more than 2,500 polling places, and approaching close to 4 million likely votes for this election. Something somewhere isn’t going to work like it’s supposed to but that’s not a sign of fraud — it’s a sign of humans being involved in the process," Fowler said. 

There are thousands of people on the ground watching the election from both parties as well as nonpartisan watchers. This high level of scrutiny means that if any fraud occurs, it will be noticed, Fowler said.

When will we know who won?

We may not know results by the end of the night, and that’s not anything unusual or problematic. It could take until the early hours Wednesday, or possibly longer.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told Fox News that whether the races are called on election night "depends how close it is."

The Associated Press also cautioned folks that they might be going to bed "without knowing who won."

McCoy said it’s very likely it will be able to call one or both races by 2 a.m. Wednesday. And Lenski predicted that about 95% of the vote would be counted and reported by some time late Tuesday or early Wednesday morning. 

Viewers should be patient and understand that the process takes time.

"I tell people once the final votes have been cast the result is there, we just have to discover it through the counting process," McCoy said. "It’s not a foot race where if you’re behind you can try to run a little faster or hope the leader slows down. The race is run once polls close."

RELATED: Fact-checking claims in the Georgia Senate races

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Our Sources

Georgia State Elections Board, Rule about processing absentee ballots, Nov. 23, 2020

AP, Here we go again: What to expect as Georgia counts votes, Jan. 4, 2020

AP, How we call races, Accessed Jan. 5, 2021

New York Times, When Will We Know Who Won the Georgia Runoffs? Jan. 5, 2020

Atlanta Journal Constitution, GEORGIA RUNOFF; ; State Election Board OKs emergency rules for absentee ballots, Nov. 24, 2020

Fox News, Georgia secretary of state on election integrity during Senate runoffs, Jan. 5, 2021

PolitiFact, Be patient on election night 2020: Counting the returns will take time, June 18, 2020

PolitiFact, Fact-checking Rand Paul’s unsupported claim about fraud in the presidential election, Dec. 2, 2020

PolitiFact, Trump rehashes debunked claim about ‘suitcases’ of ballots in Georgia phone call, Jan. 4, 2021

Email interview, Drew McCoy, president of Decision Desk HQ, Jan. 5, 2021

Telephone interview, Stephen Fowler, Georgia Public Broadcasting reporter, Jan. 5, 2021

Email interview, Joe Lenski, Edison Research co-founder and Executive Vice President , Jan. 5, 2021

Email interview, Ryan Coker, Registrar/Election Supervisor, Baker County Board of Elections, Jan. 5, 2021

Email interview, Joe Sorenson, Gwinnett County spokesperson, Jan. 5, 2021

Email interview, Jessica Corbitt, Fulton County spokesperson, Jan. 5, 2021


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