Georgia’s Unique Runoff System, a Product of Institutional Racism

By: Shaher Zakaria


Last Tuesday, all eyes were on the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia. Because the elections would decide control of the Senate, President Trump made two visits to the state to rally Republican voters for Republican Senators David Purdue and Kelly Loeffler. President-elect Joe Biden, who is the first Democrat to win the state since 1992, campaigned in Georgia for Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, highlighting the importance of both races for securing his first-term agenda.

Not surprisingly, fundraising was through the roof; the two races cost more than $837 million combined.

Why were the stakes so high in Georgia, a state with a population of just over 10 million people? The answer partly lies in Georgia’s election law. The most common electoral system for state congressional races is plurality voting: the candidate with the highest number of votes wins his or her race. In such “first past the post” systems, a candidate can win with less than majority support if more than two candidates are running.

In contrast, Georgia uses a runoff voting system for congressional races. A candidate is declared a winner if they manage to win more than half of the votes in the first round. If neither candidate succeeds in reaching that threshold, the two candidates with the most first-round votes run against each other in a second, runoff round of voting. Georgia election law requires a candidate to win a majority of votes (50 percent + 1) to be declared a winner.

But this is not a simple oddity. Georgia’s system originated from the state’s racist past.

Georgia’s 1777 constitution required that the legislative assembly choose the governor, which persisted until a constitutional amendment in 1824 required governors to be picked directly by voters. On the off chance that neither candidate managed to gain a majority, the legislative assembly would make the final decision. This provision was included in Georgia’s constitutions until 1945.

It’s important to note that back in 1917, Georgia adopted the “county unit system” for all its primary elections. This system asserted that the winner of a specific county would be awarded all of that county’s votes. Clearly, this system was friendly towards the least populated counties in terms of the weight of their vote which weighed more than urban county voters, thus disproportionately damaging African American voters, who largely resided in urban counties.

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the county unit system was unconstitutional, as it infringed upon the “one person, one vote” standard. As a result of this ruling, legislators in the state of Georgia sought to come up with an electoral system that could legally dilute the African-American vote. In the same year, Denmark Groover, a fervent segregationist recommended the implementation of runoff voting. Groover and other supporters of Georgia’s runoff elections system were quite open about their intentions of suppressing the Black minority vote in the state; the runoff system was adopted in 1964.

Following the contested 1966 gubernatorial elections between Republican Howard Callaway and Democrat Lester Maddox, Georgia also implemented runoffs for its general elections.

Up until this year, the state of Georgia has never elected an African-American senator, governor, lieutenant governor, or secretary of state. Georgia’s first African-American attorney general was elected in 1998. Rev. Raphael Warnock made history by becoming the first African American elected to the Senate. Indeed, the last time Democrats won a statewide runoff election in Georgia was in 1988.

Yet, when Democrat Stacey Abrams barely lost the 2018 governor’s race, analysts suggested that Georgia might be trending purple instead of red. Biden’s win in the presidential elections further solidified that trend. In 2016, the Black share of all voters that voted in Georgia in the 2016 presidential elections was 27.7 percent of the electorate. Due in part to Stacey Abrams’s voting rights organization, Fair Fight, which aims to increase voter turnout and get first time voters registered to vote, that number increased to 29 percent in the 2018 midterm elections before falling to 27 percent in the 2020 presidential elections. Turnout for the runoff election was huge: 88 percent of the number of votes cast during the general election. Voter turnout certainly helped propel Warnock and Ossoff to victory in Georgia.

Georgia’s electoral trend and its election law combined to produce a highly unusual situation: A single, comparatively under-populated, state like Georgia has disproportionate power and huge national implications—all while the nation faces a raging pandemic among many other challenges. What is certain is that the new year will bring a highly partisan Congress with slim majorities in both the House and Senate, alongside a new president who won with just over 51 percent of the vote. It will be a fragmented government that struggles to make change.

Photo is the Georgia State Capitol Building. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Shaher Zakaria is a PhD candidate and lecturer of political science at Howard University, where he is also the president of the Graduate Political Science Associate. Shaher has earned his masters degree in international affairs from the School of International Affairs at Pennsylvania State University. Shaher’s graduate studies focus on Public Policy/Public Administration and American government. His PhD dissertation focuses on whether the United States Constitution is undemocratic and dysfunctional with regards to some of its features and whether those defects can be amended. His work focuses on democracy, Senate malapportionment, the electoral college, and Article V. 

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