Georgia’s runoff system was designed to reduce the influence of Black voters.


ATHENS – Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, will face off Tuesday in an unusual runoff election. This was instigated by a powerful Georgia race divider who wanted to reduce the influence of black voters in the 1960s.

Runoff elections are held in 10 states in primaries, but only in Georgia and Louisiana in general elections.

Denmark Groover, who proposed runoff elections after his re-election defeat and cited black voters as the reason, promoted the adoption of the system in Georgia in 1964. Groover later admitted that the runoff system was created with the intent of reducing black political representation.

The enthusiastic introduction of runoff voting in Georgia was a means “to ensure that a conservative white candidate would win the election,” according to Ashton Ellett, a political historian, and archivist at the University of Georgia. Runoff elections had been a staple of primaries in the South for decades.

“A runoff makes it harder for people of limited means to cast their ballots. That was at a time when there were many unfair, unjust, and undemocratic policies before early in-person voting or voting by mail. That was for ideological and cultural reasons rather than partisan politics, Ellett said.

With neither Warnock nor Walker receiving 50% of the vote in last month’s election, that system is now, 58 years later, part of the first-ever race in which two black men are running for a U.S. Senate seat. Warnock was born shortly after Walker, who was born just before the system was implemented. Neither candidate mentioned the system on the campaign trail, and neither campaigner responded to inquiries about the use of runoff voting in Georgia.

Runoff elections are held frequently in Georgia in local and lower-level elections, such as General Assembly elections, but this is only the 12th statewide runoff election since the system was implemented.

Voting rights organizations have lobbied to abolish the system. According to state officials, holding another election will cost taxpayers at least $10 million, and campaigns and political organizations are expected to spend far more.

The Georgia Senate race will go to a second round. Here is how it will play out.

According to Bernard Fraga, a professor of political science at Emory University who specializes in voter turnout and demographics, “Voter turnout is historically lower overall in off-cycle elections, i.e., elections that are not held in November of a midterm election year or a presidential election year, and especially low among racial and ethnic minority groups”

According to Fraga, the system added purposeful friction to the democratic process, giving the majority group “a second chance to consolidate its support and impede the efforts of numerical minorities to build a winning coalition.”

In the 1960s, a bitter national struggle over voting rights and discrimination triggered a wave of electoral reforms that gave Georgia a runoff voting system. The longstanding efforts of the civil rights movement had led to greater scrutiny of the South’s discriminatory practices and the white elite there, and to national attention for the struggles of black Americans. Earlier methods of denying black Americans political participation, such as white-only primaries, selectively enforced poll taxes, literacy tests, and terrorist attacks, are now banned or less effective. According to the New Georgia Encyclopaedia, a peer-reviewed academic website, the percentage of black Georgians who were registered voters was 29% in 1960; by 1964, that percentage had risen to 44%.

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The Supreme Court had just overturned Georgia’s county unit electoral system, which was akin to a county-based electoral college and gave disproportionate weight to voters in the state’s many rural, predominately White counties. At the same time, the most urgent, significant civil rights legislation was being hotly debated in Congress. The court found in 1963 that the system unfairly favored White voters in rural regions over Black voters and those living in urban areas like Atlanta’s Fulton County. The first “one person, one vote” decision by the high court required that state voting procedures and congressional districts roughly balance each vote.

Georgia required new elections. Groover, a staunch segregationist and one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers, entered the room.

He was a well-known segregationist. He was the system’s lone and most vocal supporter. J. Morgan Kousser, a historian and social scientist at the California Institute of Technology who has testified as an expert witness in cases contesting the runoff system and many other civil rights cases throughout the South, said that he sponsored bills that would have segregated schools and that he was a sponsor of the bill that would have added the Confederate battle emblem to the [Georgia state] flag in 1958.

According to Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia who has studied and written numerous books on Georgia politics, including a book on the runoff system, Groover “may have been the smartest or the hardest-working legislator in the chamber.”

According to Bullock, “He read all the legislation and would interrogate lawmakers with incisive, frequently difficult questions; as a result, his name became a verb: “To Grooverize.”

However, Groover’s influence in the legislature was curtailed in 1958 when he lost his race for reelection to a White candidate. Groover attributed his defeat to “bloc voting,” a term he later admitted in court meant Black voters who supported his more moderate opponent enough to defeat him in a close plurality vote.

Black voters in certain regions of the South could elect a less virulently segregationist candidate even with limited access to the voting booth, according to Kousser. The “bloc voting controversy,” which was covered in the Macon Telegraph, saw Groover and his supporters successfully argue that Black votes were equivalent to fraud.

Groover put out a law requiring runoff elections after subsequent reelection to prevent “bloc voting” under any new system. A variant of Groover’s suggestion was accepted by a committee studying election law in 1964 a few weeks before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.

Groover and others “were looking for ways to make sure that Black voting power was diluted when the county system went,” said Lawson.

After the chaotic 1966 election of populist arch-segregationist Lester Maddox as governor shocked Georgia’s political establishment, the system was codified in the state constitution through a referendum in 1968. The governorship was the only office the 1964 changes hadn’t applied to because of a 19th-century legal quirk, according to Bullock, who claimed that a large portion of the state’s political establishment thought Maddox would have lost in a runoff to a less outspoken segregationist.

As the 1964 legislative session came to an end, ending the county unit system and sparking a contentious debate over congressional redistricting, Groover, a staunch supporter of the state’s outdated electoral laws, climbed across the balcony of the chamber to take down the official clock, symbolically stopping time in its place.

Civil rights organizations claimed the procedure was designed to be onerous for counties, campaigns, and Black political activists from the beginning of it until the 1980s. Many Black candidates outside of Atlanta found it challenging to win elections due to policies like harsh gerrymandering and countywide elections, as well as the state’s still complex election laws.

When the Justice Department and American Civil Liberties Union sued Georgia over its runoff election policy in 1990, they brought the system under federal scrutiny by claiming that the practice as a whole was a way of sapping and diluting Black votes. Admissions from Groover, who in his later years publicly acknowledged the racial motivations behind his policies, were a crucial component of that litigation.

The state legislature modified the requirement for a runoff in 1994, moving it from 50% to a minimum of 45% of the vote. But after barely losing a Senate contest in 1996, Republicans amended it again in 2008. The initiative was spearheaded by former governor Sonny Perdue (R), whose cousin David Perdue narrowly lost the 2021 U.S. Senate runoff to Democrat Jon Ossoff.

The period between an election and a runoff was cut from nine weeks to four weeks in 2021 by a broad and contentious voter law passed by Georgia Republicans, which caused confusion and stress for election officials.

While keeping the possibility of reform open, Georgia’s ruling Republicans have mainly avoided the topic during legislative sessions and avoided saying whether they support the runoff system. Brad Raffensperger (R), the secretary of state for Georgia, and his team “will be looking at the entire process for any adjustments once this one is properly completed,” a spokesman said.

Georgian voting rights organizations overwhelmingly favor doing away with runoff elections. While most states choose winners based on who receives the most votes, as many activists would like Georgia to do, others see this as an opportunity to introduce ranked-choice voting or another system.

It must be removed. Hillary Holley, executive director of Care In Action, voting rights and labor organization, declared that it must change. “It is a holdover from Jim Crow, oppressive, ineffective, and financially irresponsible. It should just disappear.

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