“The creativity of White, Southern politicians, for over 100 years, in figuring out ways to, first, keep Black people from voting and then trying to make it as difficult and burdensome as they can without it appearing racist, and a violation of the Constitution, is breathtaking,” said Steven Lawson, an expert witness in a Justice Department lawsuit contesting Georgia’s runoff system in 1990. Lawson is a professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University.
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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.
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.
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.