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Georgia Runoff History and How GOTV Efforts Could Change It

By: Laura Jimenez, Fall 2020 Intern

In the aftermath of a very heated general election cycle full of fraud allegations, recounts, and increased polarization, the United States is left with only the state of Georgia deciding its fate in two nail biting senate races. Incumbent Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are competing against Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock respectively for their seats in the United States Senate. Because the Senate’s current party distribution is 50 republicans and 48 democrats, these two seats are crucial in determining which party controls this legislative body. The outcome of these two elections will also predict how feasible it will be for President-Elect Joseph R. Biden to accomplish significant policy change during his time in office. The future of the nation rests on these two Senate seats, so all eyes are on Georgia until January 5th, the day of the runoff election. Because of the importance of these two races, it is important, as Georgians and people following these elections in other states, to know about Georgia Runoff History and how GOTV efforts may affect it.

In most elections in the United States, plurality voting is implemented, meaning that the candidate with the highest amount of votes, with disregard to whether this candidate has received the majority vote, is the winner of the election. In contrast, Georgia uses runoff voting to ensure that the vote of the majority is the overall winner of the race. In other words, if no candidate wins 50% plus one of the votes in an election, then a runoff is required by Georgia Law. Sure, runoff elections ensure that the majority of the constituents that voted are satisfied with their choice. The issue with this method, however, arises when it comes into practice in order to systematically deprive the minority of their choices. That begs the question, when and why did runoff elections become law in Georgia?

The Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent movement to enfranchise Black and Brown Americans curtailed the development of a historically strong coalition against this group of people. The result of this was several attempts by many states to systematically dilute the voices of Black and Brown Americans upon being granted the right to vote. In 1917, the adoption of the ‘county unit system” in Georgia functioned much like the Electoral College system in the United States. Since this system benefited small counties disproportionately, and most Black Americans live in urban counties, their voting power was greatly diminished and was less likely to favor their policy interests (Holzer, 2020). This system was struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States because it was considered unconstitutional under the “one person, one vote” standard.

When left without a method to suppress the Black vote, Denmark Groover, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, championed the motion to adopt runoff voting into Georgia law. In having a runoff election, Groover believed, the white vote would not have to worry about being split among many candidates and being overtaken by Black Georgians rallying around a single Black candidate. In his very own words, without enacting runoff elections into law, “the Negroes and the pressure groups and special interests are going to manipulate this State and take charge.” Runoff elections ensured that, even if the white vote was split among several candidates in the first election round, white people could rally around the same person during the runoffs and win because they are the majority. Runoff elections were made into Georgia law for all elections in 1966, and this system full of racial bias has reigned in the state since then (Holzer, 2020).

Because the Georgia law that requires runoffs has historically benefited the interests of white voters, the initial prediction for this 2021 runoff lands in favor of Senators Purdue and Loeffler, who have the support of approximately 69% of white voters (CNN, 2020). Because this election is so consequential for the future of American politics, past trends may not be indicative of Georgian voter behavior this year. Democrats typically do not turn out for runoff elections because the prospects of winning this election are low (Hulse, 2020). A major challenge for the Democratic Party of Georgia will be to energize their voter base enough to encourage them to vote in substantial numbers. Because Georgia flipped Democratic for the Presidential election this year, there is already a considerable amount of momentum going into this runoff.

In addition to this, there has been a rapid demographic shift that may indicate that this race is much closer than expected. Senatorial exit polls indicate that approximately 78% of people of color voted for Jon Ossoff, and this trend holds true for Reverend Raphael Warnock as well (CNN, 2020). Since voters of color comprise approximately 38% of Georgian constituents, there is a possibility for these senate runoffs to change history by ensuring that this demographic shows up to vote. The odds of the runoff law in Georgia benefiting the majority and silencing the minority still exist, but they are far lower than they were even ten years ago. Because of the efforts of many grassroots and non-profit organizations that are encouraging people to vote during this election, the path toward elections that take every voice into account is in sight.

As we endure this high-stakes runoff season, it is my hope that we all can be advocates for free and fair elections despite this complicated history we do not always want to discuss. Regardless of anyone’s political beliefs, it is always an honor to contribute to amplifying voices and encouraging our communities to show up for what is most important for them. Georgia is currently under the country’s political spotlight, and this is as good an opportunity as any to champion equality and integrity.

Works Cited

“Georgia 2020 U.S. Senate Exit Polls.” CNN, Cable News Network, www.cnn.com/election/2020/exit-polls/senate/georgia.

Holzer, Joshua. “A Brief History of Georgia’s Runoff Voting – and Its Racist Roots.” The Conversation, 24 Nov. 2020, theconversation.com/a-brief-history-of-georgias-runoff-voting-and-its-racist-roots-15035 6.

Hulse, Carl. Democrats Work to Defy History in Georgia Runoffs That Have Favored G.O.P. 14 Nov.2020,www.nytimes.com/2020/11/14/us/politics/georgia-runoffs-senate-control.html.

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the author only. It is not to be assumed that the opinions are those of GALEO or the GALEO Latino Community Development Fund. For the official position on any issue for GALEO, please contact Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of GALEO at jerry@galeo.org.  

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