By Johnny Jackson
Thousands have already voted early for the Dec. 2 run-off election, which will determine -- among other things -- who will represent the state of Georgia in the United States Senate.
Area residents are increasingly aware of the importance of this year's senate election, between incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin.
Early voters have been turning out in droves, compared to previous election years. Clayton County, for instance, has already voted roughly 12,500 people, and Henry County has surpassed 10,000 voters in total early votes.
So far, Henry has voted about 10 percent of its registered votes, with more than 8 percent turning out early in Clayton. Elections officials expect as much as a 15-20 percent voter turnout.
"It has been very unpredictable," said Janet Shellnut, director of Henry County Elections and Registration. "We mailed out almost 5,000 absentee ballots in seven days."
Shellnut said voting in Henry may be similar to voting during the November general election, when some 60 percent of likely voters turned out early. A small percentage of other eligible voters turned out on election day for a combine 75 percent voter turnout.
"I hope we get good support on [run-off] election day," Shellnut added. "It's nice to see a runoff with more than 5-7 percent coming out."
Voters appear to be more attuned to the politics, particular given the delicate balance that exists in the U.S. Senate between Democrats and Republicans.
"This run-off election is critical, given the incoming administration and the current balance of power in the Senate," said Chambliss. "Georgia is a conservative state, and we need someone who will stand up to President-elect Obama when his policies are not in line with Georgia's values. I will be that person."
Earlier this fall, Chambliss made stops in Jonesboro and McDonough to drum up local support for what would be a close and pivotal Nov. 4 general election. The Senate run-off election that has followed has garnered national attention.
"It's very important that Sen. Chambliss gets re-elected," said Jeremy Betts, chairman of the Clayton County Republican Party. "If not, there would be no checks on what power they [Democrats] would have in the United States Senate. ... When he wins on Tuesday, it will mean that Democrats will not have a filibuster-proof Senate."
Betts said he believes there were "a series of unfortunate events" that led up to today's run-off election between Chambliss and Martin.
"Sen. Obama [now President-elect Barack Obama] had a good showing in Georgia," he said. "And the economy specifically shocked a lot of people's confidence ... in the Republican Party. It was kind of a perfect storm of events."
"The Republican Party is really taking a hard look at itself," Betts said. "The last thing we need is for a party to fall into oblivion."
If Jim Martin wins the run-off election, it would mean that Democrats would have a so-called super-majority in the Senate, as well as a majority in the House of Representatives and control of the executive branch.
"This is certainly a huge runoff," said Jim Nichols, chairman of the Henry County Democratic Committee. "This is really a continuation of the election."
A Martin supporter, Nichols said the winner of the run-off election will likely be decided by the number of motivated voters who turnout. He said he believes that a Chambliss election would only serve to further divide the Senate, blocking bipartisan ideas and legislation.
"People are looking for leadership," Nichols said. "They want a senator that's going to work with the president. We need to come together right now and create some legislation for citizens that are hurting."
Jim Martin's Campaign Spokeswoman Kate Hansen agreed. "We feel great headed into Tuesday," Hansen said. "As Jim Martin travels all over the state talking to Georgians, voters are clear. They're looking for a senator who will work with President-elect Obama to get the economy working for the middle class again. That's why they'll head to the polls to elect Jim Martin ... "
In Clayton County, voters will also have to decide on who will take two vacant seats on the nine-member Clayton County Board of Education. Pam Adamson and Cleopatra Ballantyne are competing for the District 1 seat, while Charlton Bivins and Irene Lewis vie for the Board's District 9 seat.
Voters in both Henry and Clayton counties will also be asked to choose a public service commissioner, between Republican Lauren McDonald and Democrat Jim Powell. There is also a runoff, between Sara Doyle and Mike Sheffield, to determine who will succeed Judge John Ruffin on Georgia's Appeals Court.
Voting begins today at 7 a.m., at all regular voting precincts in Henry and Clayton.