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Georgia voters head to the polls in pivotal Senate races

The runoff elections will determine which party controls the Senate as well as the scope of the Biden administration's agenda in its first two years.
Image: Republican nominees Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue next to Democratic nominees Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock on a peach and yellow background with campaign signs.
Georgia voters head to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots in their state's Senate runoff election.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

WASHINGTON — Georgia voters headed to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots in pivotal runoff elections that will determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. ET and close at 7 p.m. ET, and those still in line at that time will be able to cast a ballot, the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office said. More than 3 million residents have already cast ballots in the two races during the early voting period that started Dec. 14, it said.

In the races, Democrat Jon Ossoff is running against Republican David Perdue, whose Senate term expired on Sunday with the start of the new Congress, and Democrat Raphael Warnock is trying to unseat GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler. The runoffs come after none of the candidates captured 50 percent of the vote in November’s election.

The outcome Tuesday will decide whether Republicans will retain control of the Senate or Democrats retake the majority, which would give President-elect Joe Biden a better chance at passing his agenda through Congress. If both Democrats win, the chamber would be split 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris acting as the tie-breaker for Democrats on party-line votes. But the party would still face obstacles given the need for 60 votes to advance major legislation.

Ossoff stopped by a polling place in Atlanta on Tuesday and told reporters that Georgians hold the power to make a significant change.

"Georgia voters have never had more power than you have today," he said in response to a question about the attention that media outlets around the world are paying to the races. "That's the reason the whole world is watching us in Georgia. That's the reason everybody needs to get out to the polls and make their voices heard."

"I want Georgia voters to feel that power and to exercise that power to make history and demand better government at a moment of crisis like this," he said.

Warnock, who took to Twitter to remind voters to bring identification to polling places, sounded cautiously optimistic about his prospects in an interview with NBC News in Marietta.

“I'm excited about the energy that we're feeling, and as long as people keep moving, we should be in good shape,” he said after a campaign stop.

Perdue and Loeffler issued a joint statement in the afternoon urging Georgians to get out and vote in an election they referred to as "generational." "This is going to be a very close election and could come down to the difference of just a few votes in a few precincts across the state," their statement said.

Voting proceeded without news of major irregularities Tuesday, but the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said it was looking into "specific threats" about the elections and were working with federal, state and local agencies to ensure a safe election. A bureau spokesperson said 10 counties were affected by the threats, which including emailed threats to county employees regarding polling locations in Cherokee County.

The candidates made their final campaign pitches Monday with the help of the leaders of their parties. Biden stumped for Ossoff and Warnock in the afternoon and President Donald Trump held a campaign-style rally for Loeffler and Perdue, where he spread misinformation about voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Both sides framed the election as a defining moment for their agendas and for the country.

“Georgia, the whole nation is looking to you,” Biden told Georgia voters in Atlanta. “One state can chart the course not just for the next four years, but for the next generation."

During Trump's roughly 70-minute speech, he continued to make unsupported claims about missing ballots in this year's presidential election and threatened to campaign "against your governors and your crazy secretaries” in 2022 — spelling out a fear of many Republicans that defending the integrity of the November election could come at the risk of losing the president’s support.

He tweeted Tuesday morning that Georgia should get out and vote for Loeffler and Perdue, "So important to do so!"

Later in the day, Gabriel Sterling, who manages the state's voting system, refuted a claim by Trump about Dominion voting machines in Columbia County, saying an issue there had been resolved hours earlier and the president had received "old intel." Sterling held a press conference Monday in which he refuted many of Trump's baseless claims about voting in the state.

Trump's comments came after audio surfaced of a phone call between him and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Saturday in which the president is heard begging the official to "find" votes to overturn Biden’s victory in the state.

The president's continued attacks on the integrity of the election serve as the backdrop for Congress' certification of the Electoral College vote on Wednesday — a normally routine process that has become a litmus test on support for the president and his claims of voter fraud.

Nearly a dozen Republican senators have announced they will object to the Electoral College votes unless a commission is formed to audit the results of the 2020 election. Dozens of House Republicans are expected to object as well.

While the objections will force lawmakers to vote on the Electoral College results, putting them on record about whether they back Trump's voter fraud claims, the move has no real chance of overturning Biden's win.

Loeffler said Monday night that she also plans to object to the Electoral College certification process and backs the proposed commission, which Warnock called a “cynical political calculation” that would fail.

“What can be more radical than trying to undermine a duly certified American election?" Warnock told NBC News on Tuesday. "It’s shameful. She's aiding and abetting in this process.”

Perdue has also said he supports the objections. His campaign senior strategist, Austin Chambers, said that Perdue isn't worried about GOP critics of Trump staying home.

“Those Republicans understand the importance of holding the majority,” he said.

On Tuesday, a judge denied Trump's latest effort to overturn the election in Georgia, which came after lawyers for Raffensperger and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who are both Republicans, blasted the lawsuit in a filing late Monday.

“Plaintiff nevertheless seeks to disenfranchise millions of Georgia voters at the thirteenth hour — despite plaintiff’s own dilatory and confusing actions,” the lawyers wrote in a response to the suit.