Georgia's Senate seats will be determined by runoff elections some say are tainted with racism

Some say runoffs in the state are a continuation of discriminatory practices.

With two runoff races in Georgia on Tuesday set to determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, some experts say the runoff process in the state is a continuation of discriminatory voting practices there.

"In the American experience, runoff elections historically have disproportionately impacted African American communities in Georgia. Runoff elections were adopted to legally maintain white majority control, particularly during the Civil Rights era," said Joshua Holzer, a political science professor at Westminster College in Missouri.

But in Georgia and nine other Southern states, a candidate must reach at least 50% of the vote to win. Unless a candidate meets this threshold, the race is decided by a runoff election.

While nine other states have runoff elections in primaries, Georgia is the only state that mandates runoffs for general elections.

Holzer said that the runoff system in Georgia was designed so that if a Black candidate made it to the second round, white voters from both parties could come together to diminish the Black candidate's chances.

In Georgia, incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who is white and was appointed to her seat in 2019, is up against Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is Black.

In November, Loeffler won 25.9% percent of the vote while Warnock received 32.9% -- as both candidates split the vote with other candidates, including members of their own parties, who were competing in the 20-person "jungle primary" style special election that will determine who serves the final two years of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson's term.

At the same time, now former Republican Sen. David Perdue is facing a runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff, both of whom are white. Perdue won 49.7% of the vote in November, while Ossoff won 48%.

Runoff elections were created by Democrats, who at the time were more conservative.

Republicans, now known as the more conservative party, maintain strong single-party control in Georgia and historically benefit from runoffs.

Runoff races in the state date back to the Civil Rights era.

Georgia State Rep. Denmark Groover, a staunch segregationist and Democrat, lost the primary for his seat in 1958. He won the white vote, but African Americans voted for his opponent by a 5-1 margin, resulting in his loss, according to a National Historic Landmarks Program research study In 1964, the Georgia legislature voted to implement the runoff election system in gubernatorial, congressional and local elections.

However, historian and The Grio journalist Biba Adams, said the timing of its creation and implementation show its racially motivated undertones.

"The process was proposed in 1963 and if you look at what was happening in this country at that time, it was just before the Voting Rights Act was passed. As a Black person, if you tell me that something as basic as voting laws were being made to shift and change it around, just as laws were being made to make it more fair that obviously that is obvious to me that that implies racism," Adams said.

And while University of Georgia political science professor Charles S. Bullock III argues runoff elections were rooted more in "good governance" than racism, not everyone agrees.

"Prior to the adoption of this code in 1964, the local Democratic executive committees set the rules for primary elections in their counties and in their congressional districts. Some counties used the majority vote requirement … and some counties would change from election to election, depending upon which would benefit the local, political clique that was in power. A primary reason for having a majority vote requirement was to eliminate the corrupt powers of local sheriffs," Bullock says.

The runoff system created a uniform standard of rules, with the hope of eliminating corruption in politics. Bullock argues runoffs were not rooted in disenfranchising Black voters, as they already were disenfranchised.

"When states adopted these [voting systems], they already had pretty much eliminated the Black vote," Bullock said, referring to discriminatory practices, including poll taxes, literacy tests and English language requirements used to suppress African American turnout.

"Groover was destroyed by his opponent in the Democratic primary … and therefore was on the outs with the administration. Groover had no influence with the administration," Bullock said.

However, Adams says Groover's intentions were clear.

"His motivation was to prevent, he was one of the main people to push for runoff elections, and I do believe that it has racist roots," Adams says.

Cal Jilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, also argues runoffs were implemented as a continuance of discriminatory practices.

"George's adoption of the runoff system in 1964 is late in the game. There have been electoral systems in Georgia from the Reconstruction Era that had served the same purpose" of disenfranchising Black voters, he said.

Prior to runoffs, "county unit systems" were used in Georgia primary elections.

Counties were given representation like the way the Electoral College works. "Urban" counties were given six votes, "town" counties four votes, and "rural" counties two votes. The system was supposed to make sure smaller counties are still given a voice in the election and are not fully overcome by the larger cities.

Many African Americans lived in urban counties, whereas many white voters lived in "rural" and "town" counties. While "urban" counties got greater representation than "rural" and "town" counties, it was still not proportionate to the number of people who lived in "urban" counties.

"It may seem fair that, urban areas have more votes and rural areas have a little fewer votes because of population. But the difference between a rural area and Atlanta is huge. The purpose of the system was designed to give the white, more rural areas more influence when nominating people for the primary process," Holzer said.

According to the National Historic Landmarks Program research study" , both the county unit system and runoffs represented discriminatory practices aimed at Black voters.

"The electoral system was designed to support white supremacy, if not exclude Black voting," Jilson said.

The electoral system he is referring to limited registration, primary poll tax, and voter literacy tests.

"The Justice Department and the federal courts would declare a particular element of the electoral system in a Southern state unconstitutional. Then, the legislature would put up another element that had the same purpose, which is buttressing white supremacy," he said.

"The key here is that most of these are Southern states, who have a long history, going back to the end of the Civil War of racially exclusionary electoral systems…runoffs are just one component," Jilson added.

The federal government has challenged Georgia's runoff system in court.

In 1990, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, John R. Dunne, argued the system "disproportionately disenfranchised African Americans," but lost.

"The federal courts require not just a claim of unfairness, but evidence demonstrating adverse racial bias. He couldn't show conclusive evidence that the runoff system in Georgia had racially discriminatory purposes and effects," Jilson said. "He ended up claiming, 'runoffs have a demonstrably chilling effect on the ability of Blacks to become candidates for public office.' And the court said, 'Demonstrably chilling, well, what's the percentage?' 'What are the facts?' What are the examples?' In the court's view, he did not have sufficient evidence for proof," Jilson said.

Despite the concerns in the U.S., runoff elections across the world are common.

"Runoff elections themselves are not inherently racist. Runoff elections can be problematic, but runoff elections themselves are not bad -- they tend to create more moderate winners," Holzer said.

"It ensures that whoever ultimately wins the election has the support of the majority of the people. You don't want to necessarily have a president that only 30% of the country supports, and two-thirds of the country doesn't like, so a runoff election ensures that whoever wins is somewhat popular,” he added.

Georgia, however, is no stranger to voter suppression efforts that go beyond the runoff system.

Stacey Abrams, a Black woman and former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, alleged voter suppression throughout her 2018 gubernatorial campaign, which she lost to Republican Brian Kemp, a white man who was serving as secretary of state, and therefore overseeing the election he was a candidate in.