While runoff elections had existed for decades in Southern primaries, Georgia’s enthusiastic adoption of two-round voting came as a way to “make sure a conservative white candidate won an election,” said Ashton Ellett, a political historian and archivist at the University of Georgia.
“A departure makes it harder for people with fewer resources to vote. This was before advanced in-person voting or [voting was offered] in the mail, and when we had many other unfair, unjust, undemocratic policies. It wasn’t for a partisan advantage as much as an ideological and cultural advantage,” Ellett said.
Now, 58 years later, that system is part of the first race in history in which two black men are competing for a U.S. Senate seat after neither Warnock nor Walker received 50 percent of the vote in last month’s election. Walker was born just before the system was created and Warnock was born soon after. Neither has discussed the system on the trail, and neither campaign has responded to requests for comment on Georgia’s use of runoff.
Runoffs are common in Georgia’s local and down-ballot races, like contests for the General Assembly, but the race between Warnock and Walker is only the 12th statewide runoff since the system was enacted.
Voting rights groups have pushed to get rid of the system, and state officials estimate that administering another election would cost taxpayers at least $10 million, with campaigns and political groups expected to spend even more than that.
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“Off-cycle elections, that is, elections not held in November in midterm or presidential years, historically have lower turnout in general and especially low turnout for racial and ethnic minority groups,” said Bernard Fraga, professor of political science at Emory University. studies turnout and demographics.
The system deliberately added friction to the democratic process and provides “a second chance for the majority group to consolidate support and prevents the efforts of numerical minorities to build a winning coalition,” Fraga said.
The flurry of electoral changes that gave Georgia a runoff system came amid a bitter national battle over voting rights and discrimination in the 1960’s. The activists’ years of work as part of the civil rights movement had brought national attention to the struggle of black Americans in the South and greater scrutiny of the region’s discriminatory policies and entrenched white segregationist elite. Previous techniques used to politically disenfranchise black Americans, including primaries open only to white voters, selectively applied poll taxes, literacy tests, and acts of terrorism, were now banned or less effective. The number of black Georgians registered to vote in 1960 was 29 percent, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, an educational website written and reviewed by researchers; by 1964 that figure had already risen to 44 percent.
“The creativity of white southern politicians, for over 100 years, in figuring out ways to first keep blacks from voting and then try to make it as difficult and burdensome as they can without it coming across as racist and a violation of the Constitution, is breathtaking,” said Steven Lawson, professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University, who served as an expert witness in a Justice Department lawsuit challenging Georgia’s runoff system in 1990.
The most pressing, major civil rights legislation was hotly debated in Congress, while the Supreme Court had just scrapped Georgia’s county-based election system, akin to a county-based electoral college that gave disproportionate weight to voters in the state’s many rural, predominantly white counties. The court ruled in 1963 that the system disproportionately empowered rural white voters over black voters and those in urban areas such as Fulton County, home of Atlanta. It was the first of the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” rulings that mandated state voting systems and congressional districts each vote weighed roughly equally.
Georgia needed a new electoral system. In stepped Groover, one of the state’s most influential legislators and a hard-line segregationist.
“He had been a leading segregationist. He was the only leading proponent of the county unit system. He sponsored school desegregation bills, and he sponsored the bill that changed [Georgia state] flag” to add the Confederate battle emblem in 1958, said J. Morgan Kousser, a historian and social scientist at the California Institute of Technology who served as an expert witness in cases challenging the runoff system and many other civil rights cases throughout the South.
Groover “may have been the smartest or hardest-working legislator in the chamber,” according to Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who has researched and written several books on Georgia politics, including one on drainage.
“He read all the legislation and asked pointed, often challenging questions to lawmakers, so much so that his name became a verb: ‘To Grooverize,'” Bullock said.
Still, his influence in the legislature was interrupted in 1958 when Groover lost his re-election bid to another white candidate, whom Groover accused of “bloc voting,” a euphemism he later admitted in court meant that black voters supported his more moderate rival with enough votes to defeat him in a tight majority election.
Even with little access to the ballot, a marginal number of black voters could help elect a less hard-line segregationist in parts of the South, Kousser said. Headlines in the Macon Telegraph depicted the “block voting controversy,” in which Groover and his supporters effectively argued that black votes amounted to fraud.
After a later re-election, Groover proposed a bill enacting runoff to end “block voting” in any new system. A 1964 Election Law Study Committee adopted a version of Groover’s proposal weeks before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
“When the county system went, people like Groover were looking for ways to ensure that black voting power was diluted,” Lawson said.
The system was codified in the state constitution through a 1968 referendum after Georgia’s political machine was shocked by the chaotic 1966 election of Lester Maddox, a populist arch-segregationist, as governor. Much of the state’s political establishment thought Maddox would have lost in a runoff to a less outspoken segregationist, Bullock said, but the governorship was the only office to which the 1964 amendments had not applied because of a 19th-century legal quirk .century.
Groover was so committed to the state’s defunct election laws that when the 1964 legislative session ended, signaling the end of the county unit system and in the midst of a tense congressional redistricting battle, Groover crawled across the chamber’s balcony to remove its official clock in a symbolic show of stopping time in its place.
From its inception through the 1980s, civil rights groups argued that the process was deliberately burdensome to counties, campaigns and black political activists. Along with policies like harsh gerrymandering and countywide elections, many black candidates outside of Atlanta found it difficult to succeed alongside the state’s still byzantine election rules.
The system came under federal control in 1990, when the Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union jointly sued Georgia over its runoff policy and described practice writ large as a means of exhausting and diluting black voices. A key part of that trial: admissions by Groover, who late in life openly acknowledged the racial motivations behind his policies.
According to a court filing, Groover told federal investigators that “I was a segregationist. I was a county man. But if you want to determine whether I was racially prejudiced, I was. If you want to determine that any of my political activity was racially motivated, so it was.”
The department lost in federal trial and appellate court. The justices accepted the state’s defense that the system was created to fight corruption in the county unitary system.
“The judge was willing to believe that even though Groover was a racist, he was not responsible for this system,” Lawson said.
In 1992, the state legislature changed the threshold for a runoff, requiring a candidate to earn at least 45 percent of the vote instead of 50 percent. But Republicans changed it back in 1996 after losing a Senate race. The effort was led by then-Governor Sonny Perdue (R), whose cousin, David Perdue, narrowly lost a 2021 U.S. Senate re-election to Democrat Jon Ossoff.
In 2021, Georgia Republicans passed a sweeping and controversial voter law that shortened the time between an election and a runoff from nine weeks to four, leading to confusion and stress for election administrators.
Georgia’s governing Republicans have largely avoided the issue during legislative hearings and have not answered whether they support the runoff system, though they are keeping the door open on whether the process could be reformed. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) and his staff “will look at the entire process for possible improvements once this is successfully completed,” said Mike Hassinger, a spokesman.
Voting rights groups in Georgia overwhelmingly support drain repeal. While many activists would like Georgia to choose winners based on who gets the most votes, as happens in most states, others see this as an opportunity to implement ranked choice voting or some other system.
“It has to go. It has to change,” said Hillary Holley, executive director of Care In Action, a voting rights and advocacy group. “It’s a holdover from Jim Crow, it’s oppressive, inefficient and also fiscally irresponsible. It just has to go.”