US election live: Final count under way in Georgia to decide Senate control

Georgia voters are deciding the balance of power in Congress in a pair of high-stakes Senate runoff elections that will help determine President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to enact what could be the most progressive governing agenda in generations.

Republicans are unified against Biden’s plans for health care, environmental protection and civil rights, but some fear that outgoing President Donald Trump’s brazen attempts to undermine the integrity of the nation’s voting systems may discourage voters in Georgia.

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A Georgia election official says turnout appears light statewide as voters decide runoff elections for the state’s US Senate seats.

Georgia’s deputy secretary of state, Jordan Fuchs, says polling places across the state were seeing light turnout Tuesday as of about noon. She said voters were waiting only about five minutes to cast ballots.

More than 3 million Georgians have already voted either early in person or via absentee ballots. That’s more than 60 per cent of the nearly 5 million who voted in November’s presidential election.

In conservative-leaning east Cobb County, dozens of red Kelly Loeffler signs and dozens more blue David Perdue signs dotted the median of the highway at the base of Sweat Mountain, one of metro Atlanta’s highest peaks.

At the small churches and community centres that hosted voting Tuesday, there were no lines but a steady stream of voters. At Pilgrimage United Church of Christ, a new car arrived about every 30 seconds. But there were no lines, and voters were in and out in less than five minutes.

As the voting got under way, Trump unleashed on Twitter, urging supporters to vote and claiming the Republican Senate candidates have joined the #StopTheSteal campaign to overturn the November 3 election result.

Biden countered by declaring Georgians had the power “in your hands”.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris warned voters about potential trouble at polling stations.

At a rally in northwest Georgia on the eve of Tuesday’s runoffs, Trump repeatedly declared that the November elections were plagued by fraud that Republican officials, including his former attorney general and Georgia’s elections chief, say did not occur. At the same time, Trump encouraged his supporters to show up in force for Georgia’s Tuesday contests.

“You’ve got to swarm it tomorrow,” Trump told thousands of cheering supporters, downplaying the threat of fraud.

Democrats must win both of the state’s Senate elections to gain the Senate majority. In that scenario, the Senate would be equally divided 50-50 with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaker for Democrats.

The Democrats secured a narrow House majority and the White House during November’s general election.

Georgia’s elections, necessary because no Senate candidates received a majority of the general election votes, have been unique for many reasons, not least because the contenders essentially ran as teams, even campaigning together sometimes.

One contest features Democrat Raphael Warnock, who serves as the senior pastor of the Atlanta church where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King jnr grew up and preached. The 51-year-old Warnock was raised in public housing and spent most of his adult life preaching in Baptist churches.

Warnock is facing Republican Kelly Loeffler, a 50-year-old former businesswoman who was appointed to the Senate less than a year ago by the state’s Republican governor. She is only the second woman to represent Georgia in the Senate, although race has emerged as a campaign focus far more than gender. Loeffler and her allies have seized on some snippets of Warnock’s sermons at the historic black church to cast him as extreme. Dozens of religious and civil rights leaders have pushed back.

The other election pits 71-year-old former business executive David Perdue, who held the Senate seat until his term officially expired on Sunday, against Democrat Jon Ossoff, a former congressional aide and journalist. At just 33 years old, Ossoff would be the Senate’s youngest member if elected. He rose to national prominence in 2017 when he launched an unsuccessful House special election bid.

Even a closely divided Democratic Senate wouldn’t guarantee Biden everything he wants, given chamber rules that require 60 votes to move most major legislation. But if Democrats lose even one of Tuesday’s contests, Biden would have little shot for swift up-or-down votes on his most ambitious plans to expand government-backed health care coverage, strengthen the middle class, address racial inequality and combat climate change.

In another signal of how high the stakes were, President Barack Obama warned Georgians the “fundamental principles of our democracy” were at risk.

A Republican-controlled Senate also would create a rougher path for Biden’s Cabinet picks and judicial nominees.

“Georgia, the whole nation is looking to you. The power is literally in your hands,” Biden declared at his own rally in Atlanta on Monday. “One state can chart the course, not just for the next four years, but for the next generation.”

Despite fears among some Republicans that Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud could depress turnout, the two GOP candidates strongly support him. Perdue on Tuesday said that Trump would “of course” deserve credit if the Republicans won.

“What the president said last night is, even if you are upset about all of that, you’ve got to stand up with us and fight,” Perdue told Fox & Friends. “We’ll look back on this day if we don’t vote and really rue the day that we turned the keys to the kingdom over to the Democrats.”

Even as the voting got under way, Trump repeated his claims of earlier voter fraud by calling on Vice President Mike Pence to throw out ballots that favoured Biden.

Democratic candidate Ossoff promised rapid passage of US$2000 stimulus checks for coronavirus relief if Georgia voters flip control of the Senate to Democrats.

Ossoff told reporters outside an Atlanta polling site Tuesday that “history is unfolding in Georgia right now” as voters decide runoffs for both the state’s Senate seats.

The federal government has approved $600 checks to help relieve the economic hardships of the pandemic, but Republican leaders in the Senate have blocked efforts to raise it to US$2000 despite support for the higher amount from Trump.

Ossoff said Trump made “a direct attack on Georgia voters” when he asked Georgia’s top elections official to “find” votes to overturn Trump’s electoral loss in the state during a weekend phone call.

Earlier on Monday, Loeffler pledged to join a small but growing number of GOP senators protesting Congress’ expected certification of Biden’s victory Wednesday.

Democrats have hammered Perdue and Loeffler, each among the Senate’s wealthiest members, for conspicuously timed personal stock trades after members of Congress received information about the public health and economic threats of Covid-19 as Trump and Republicans downplayed the pandemic. None of the trades has been found to violate the law or Senate ethics, but Warnock and Ossoff have cast the Republicans as self-interested and out of touch.

Perdue and Loeffler have answered by lambasting the Democrats as certain to to usher in a leftward lunge in national policy. Neither Warnock nor Ossoff is a socialist, as Republicans allege. They do, however, support Biden’s agenda.

This week’s elections mark the formal finale to the turbulent 2020 election season more than two months after the rest of the nation finished voting. The stakes have drawn nearly $500m in campaign spending to a once solidly Republican state that now finds itself as the nation’s premier battleground.

“It’s really about whether an agenda that moves the nation forward can be forged without significant compromise,” said Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights icon. “There are a lot of things that are in the balance.”

The results also will help demonstrate whether the political coalition that fueled Biden’s victory was an anti-Trump anomaly or part of a new landscape.

Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes by about 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast in November.

Democratic success will likely depend on driving a huge turnout of African Americans, young voters, college-educated voters and women, all groups that helped Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 to win Georgia. Republicans, meanwhile, have been focused on energising their own base of white men and voters beyond the core of metro Atlanta.

In downtown Atlanta, Henry Dave Chambliss, 67, voted for the two Republicans. He said he wants Republicans to keep Senate control to ensure the incoming Biden administration doesn’t slide “all the way to the left”.

“I’m moderately successful and I know they will come after more of my money which I’ve earned,” Chambliss said. “I was born a Southern Democrat, and I just hope and pray that some moderate voices are heard and things stay more in the middle of the road.”

Beverly McDaniel cast her ballot Tuesday morning amid light turnout at a neighborhood centre’s gymnasium in Atlanta. She voted for both Democrats, saying she believes they would do better dealing with the hardships wrought by the coronavirus.

“Our kids are not fully, fully in school like they’re supposed to be and people don’t have jobs,” said McDaniel, a medical field worker. She said the virus “is taking over where we should have the government taking over”.

– AP journalists Haleluya Hadero, Angie Wang and Russ Bynum contributed.

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