A brief history of the Georgia runoff — and how this year’s contest between two black men is a sign of progress

Former President Barack Obama raises hands with Stacey Abrams and US Senator Raphael Warnock at a campaign event October 28, 2022 in Georgia. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

by Joshua Holzer Westminster College

In the US, all elections are administered by the states. But not all states use the same rules.

Georgia uses a version of the runoff that includes two rounds of voting. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the votes in the first round, they are usually declared the winner. If not, the two candidates with the most votes from the first ballot will compete against each other in a second ballot.

There have been concerns in the past that such a runoff system would disadvantage black candidates. Former US Assistant Attorney General John R. Dunne once argued that Georgia’s runoff system “had a demonstrable chilling effect on Black people’s ability to become candidates for public office.”

US Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina similarly argues that runoffs “deliberately dilute black votes” and successfully “prevent black candidates from reaching elected office.”

But on December 6, 2022, Georgians will vote in a runoff between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker — both African Americans.

So is a runoff racist? Or not?

Two black men and a black woman stand in voting booths as they cast their ballots.
Parishioners will vote in Atlanta on November 8, 2022. Megan Varner/Getty Images

A Brief History of the Georgia Runoff

In 1917, Georgia introduced the County Unit System, a form of election that functioned similarly to the US Electoral College.

In presidential elections, each state receives a certain number of electoral votes based on the size of its congressional delegation, which in turn is based in part on population. Therefore, more populous states have more votes than less populous states.

Similarly, under the Georgian district system, more populous districts received more votes than less populous districts in nationwide elections. Each county’s votes were then awarded to whoever won that particular county.

The Electoral College gives proportionately more power to less populous states. Similarly, the district unit system favored less populous districts while more populous districts were underrepresented.

This was particularly detrimental to the influence of African-American voters, who largely lived in the more populous urban counties.

In 1963, the US Supreme Court declared the county unit system unconstitutional as violating the principle of “one person, one vote.”

In response, Georgia lawmakers began searching for a new voting system that could similarly but legally suppress African American voting. Later that year, Denmark Groover, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, proposed passing the runoff because it would “again provide protections that … were abolished with the death of the county unit system.”

The electoral system most commonly used in the United States is majority voting, in which the winner of an election is the candidate who receives the most votes. A potential disadvantage of this system is that when there are many candidates running for office and the voting is divided up in several ways, the candidate with the highest number of votes may receive a relatively small percentage of the total votes and win by a majority, not a majority.

The fear of many white Georgians was that if elections were left to majority voting, the white vote could be split among several different candidates. If all African Americans voted for a black candidate, that person could end up winning the election with the most votes overall, even if their winning percentage were relatively low.

To prevent this, Groover and his allies pushed for the introduction of the runoff as an opportunity to “prevent Negro bloc votes from controlling the election.”

In 1964, the Georgia legislature accepted Groover’s proposal.

The runoff is popular around the world

Runoff elections have been around for a while and have been used in a variety of contexts. Germany began experimenting with this type of voting in the late 18th century, then it spread to Norway in 1906 and France in 1928. The runoff was later adopted by several former French colonies after they gained independence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, several new independent countries decided to adopt the system.

Today, runoff elections are used in more than 40 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and America.

In addition to Georgia, several other U.S. states make some use of runoffs, including Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont.

The top two primaries in California, Nebraska, and Washington, and the so-called “jungle primary” in Louisiana are also runoff variations.

Alaska, Maine and several cities across the country recently introduced ranked voting. This system is sometimes referred to as “instant runoff voting” because it can also be viewed as a type of runoff.

As an expert on electoral systems, I’ve found that runoff elections tend to result in better policies. This is because runoff elections often favor center-leaning candidates, and center-leaning candidates seem more likely to respect human rights and better represent a larger segment of the electorate.

A black man in a suit stands behind a microphone and gives a campaign speech.
U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, a Republican, speaks to supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump during a GOP rally March 26, 2022 in Commerce, Georgia. Megan Varner/Getty Images

A sign of progress

In a 1984 affidavit, Groover openly testified that he was “a segregationist” who “had a lot of prejudice” and didn’t mind “admitting it.” Although Groover was a racist and pushed for Georgia runoffs on racist grounds, that doesn’t mean runoffs as a system are inherently racist.

Rather, it shows how people can be racist.

If the primary concern of a majority of voters is to prevent a minority candidate from winning, the runoff will prevent a minority candidate from winning.

Prior to Warnock’s historic victory in 2021, Georgia had not elected a single African-American U.S. Senator, governor, lieutenant governor, or secretary of state in either a runoff or general election.

The fact that Warnock is now running against Walker, another African American, suggests that preventing a minority candidate from running is no longer the primary concern of a majority of Georgian voters. Instead of race, other concerns now seem to dictate the voting of most Georgians.

Regardless of who wins, Georgians can be somewhat proud that the state seems to be taking a small step towards a future in which the content of one’s character is more important than skin color – and one in which originally one was Electoral method used to bar black people from public office now seems to have missed its target.

Editor’s Note: This story incorporates material from a previous story published on November 23, 2020.The conversation

Joshua Holzer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Westminster College

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.