Georgia’s Runoff Elections Have a Racist History

5 minute read

The Georgia Senate race has led to a runoff—set to take place Dec. 6— between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker, but historically runoffs in the state were created to suppress the Black vote.

Georgia is one of only two states, along with Louisiana, that requires a runoff in all general elections if no candidate achieves at least 50% of the vote; and experts say Georgia’s history shows how an electoral system that demands the majority’s support can be manipulated to exclude the minority vote.

Nearly 60 years since the runoff system was implemented, critics argue that prolonging the election to a second day still enables barriers against minorities and other vulnerable voters—even when the two candidates are Black.

“Runoffs also disadvantage people with barriers to transportation and who work jobs that do not allow for easy time off—to the extent that because of history and structural racism, this group includes more racial minorities,” Dr. Mitchell Brown, a political science professor at Auburn University who focuses on elections and marginalized communities, tells TIME.

The segregationist history of behind Georgia’s runoffs

Georgia’s runoff system began in 1963 when state representative Denmark Groover—an avid segregationist—proposed adding a second round of voting to ensure that at least half of all constituents backed a candidate.

Groover’s proposal came a few years after he lost his previous election bid in 1958, which he blamed on “Negro bloc voting,” or that theoretically, if Black voters put up a united front and voted consistently, it would further their political interests. Groover thought that a runoff would decrease the likelihood of an African-American being elected because it would rally white voters around a white candidate.

Before this practice was put into place, the state used the county unit system, which allocated a set number of votes per county, similar to the U.S. electoral college. The Supreme Court struck the county unit system down, creating the opportunity to use a different system.

According to a 2007 study by the National Park Service twenty years after the runoff practice was put in place Groover admitted, “If you want to establish if I was racially prejudiced, I was. If you want to establish that some of my political activity was racially motivated, it was.”

Dr. Bernard Fraga, a political science professor at Emory University who specializes in electoral, racial and ethnic politics, tells TIME that the 50% threshold sprang up “in many states of the South” at the same time as “other measures designed to reduce the likelihood that Black voters could elect candidates of choice.”

“Unless there’s only two candidates, it’s very hard, in most cases, to reach that majority threshold,” Brown says. Historians point out that under plurality voting, which is the more common system where the candidate with most votes wins, politicians often feared that white voters could end up divided between multiple candidates.

“In Georgia, for decades, the runoff strongly favored Republican candidates, in the sense that Republicans were able to consolidate their support after a runoff election, even if they were lagging somewhat in the general,” Fraga says, explaining how Republicans, whose voting bloc was predominantly white, tended to benefit most from runoffs.

What are the effects of the runoffs today?

Runoff elections’ segregationist legacy arguably persists today with the challenges it still poses for many voters.

The people who “tend to vote in” in elections are “people who have a history and tradition of doing it” Brown says. “If you have a group of people who have been systematically excluded, that kind of tradition doesn’t develop in the really entrenched way that it would for the people who aren’t historically excluded.”

Brown adds that the runoff structure, “because of what we know about who’s likely to be a voter and who is less likely to turn out and how that’s embedded in history of voter suppression, would make the minority party candidate less likely to win.”

Some opponents of the runoff system favor rank voting, also known as, “preferential voting,” a system where voters only vote once, but they rank candidates in order from highest to lowest preference.

“If you were just doing rank choice voting, there would be no reason to have runoff elections,” Brown says. However, the challenge with rank voting is that it takes longer to count the results.

A large part of the issue is that America’s lack of education on electoral systems, Brown says. “Everything’s a balance and there’s a trade off between how long it takes to get the results and making sure that you’ve not disenfranchised [anyone] and every vote that should count is counted.”

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