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Georgia’s runoff system was created to dilute Black voting power


ATLANTA — Tuesday’s showdown between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and Republican challenger Herschel Walker is the product of an unusual general election runoff system that was pushed by a powerful Georgia segregationist who sought to blunt the power of Black voters in the 1960s.

While 10 states use runoffs in primary elections, Georgia and Louisiana are the only two that do so in general elections. Georgia’s system was created in 1964 after the urging of Denmark Groover, who blamed Black voters for a reelection loss and proposed runoffs. Groover later acknowledged the runoff system was intended to suppress Black political representation.

While runoff elections had existed for decades in Southern primaries, Georgia’s enthusiastic adoption of two-round voting came as a way of “ensuring a conservative White candidate won an election,” said Ashton Ellett, a political historian and archivist at the University of Georgia.

“A runoff makes it harder for folks who have less resources to vote. This was before advanced in-person voting or [voting was offered] by mail and when we had many other unfair, iniquitous, undemocratic policies. It wasn’t for a partisan advantage so much as an ideological and cultural one,” Ellett said.

Now, 58 years later, that system is part of the first race in history where two Black men are competing for a U.S. Senate seat, after neither Warnock nor Walker garnered 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 runoffs.

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 been pushing to get rid of the system. State officials estimate that administering another election will cost taxpayers at least $10 million, and campaigns and political groups are expected to spend even more than that.

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“Off-cycle elections, that is, elections not held in November of midterm or presidential years, historically see lower turnout overall and especially low turnout for racial and ethnic minority groups,” said Bernard Fraga, a professor of political science at Emory University who studies voter turnout and demographics.

The system added intentional friction to the democratic process and provides “a second chance for the majority group to consolidate support and stymies efforts by numerical minorities to build a winning coalition,” Fraga said.

The flurry of election changes that delivered Georgia a runoff system came amid a fierce national fight over voting rights and discrimination in the 1960s. The years-long work of activists 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. Past techniques used to politically disenfranchise Black Americans, including primaries only open to White voters, selectively applied poll taxes, literacy tests and acts of terrorism, were now outlawed or less effective. The proportion of Black Georgians registered to vote in 1960 was 29 percent, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, an educational website written and reviewed by scholars; by 1964, that number had risen to 44 percent.

“The creativity of White, Southern politicians, for over 100 years, in figuring out ways to, first, keep Black people from voting and then trying to make it as difficult and burdensome as they can without it appearing racist, and a violation of the Constitution, is breathtaking,” said Steven Lawson, a professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University, who served as an expert witness in a Justice Department suit challenging Georgia’s runoff system in 1990.

Most pressing, major civil rights legislation was being hotly debated in Congress while the Supreme Court had just scrapped Georgia’s county unit electoral 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 like Fulton County, home to Atlanta. It was the first of the high court’s “one person, one vote” rulings that mandated state voting systems and congressional districts weigh each vote 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 single leading proponent of the county unit system. He sponsored school segregation bills, and he was a sponsor of the bill that changed the [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 across the South.

Groover “may have been the smartest, or the hardest-working legislator in the chamber,” according to Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, who has researched and written multiple books on Georgia politics, including a book on the runoff system.

“He read all the legislation and would ask pointed, often challenging questions of legislators, so much so his name became a verb: ‘To Grooverize,’” said Bullock.

Yet his influence in the legislature was interrupted in 1958, when Groover lost his reelection bid to another White candidate, which Groover blamed on “bloc voting,” a euphemism he later admitted in court meant Black voters supporting his more moderate rival by enough votes to defeat him in a tight plurality 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 chronicled the “bloc voting controversy” in which Groover and his supporters effectively argued that Black votes were tantamount to fraud.

After a later reelection, Groover proposed a bill enacting runoff elections to stop “bloc 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 make sure that Black voting power was diluted,” said Lawson.

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 believed Maddox would have lost in a runoff to a less outspoken segregationist, Bullock said, but the governorship was the only office the 1964 changes hadn’t applied to because of a 19th-century legal quirk.

Groover was so committed to the state’s defunct electoral laws that as the 1964 legislative session ended, signaling the end of the county unit system and amid a tense congressional redistricting fight, Groover crawled across the chamber’s balcony to remove its official clock in a symbolic show of stopping time in its place.

From its start through the 1980s, civil rights groups argued the process was intentionally burdensome on counties, campaigns and Black political activists. Coupled with policies like harsh gerrymandering and countywide elections, many Black candidates outside Atlanta found it difficult to succeed alongside the state’s still byzantine election rules.

The system came under federal scrutiny in 1990, when the Justice Department and American Civil Liberties Union jointly sued Georgia over its runoff policy, describing the practice writ large as a means of exhausting and diluting Black votes. A key part of that litigation: admissions from Groover who late in life openly acknowledged the racial motivations behind his policies.

According to a court deposition, Groover told federal investigators that “I was a segregationist. I was a county unit man. But if you want to establish if I was racially prejudiced, I was. If you want to establish that some of my political activity was racially motivated, it was.”

The department lost in federal trial and appeals court. Judges accepted the state’s defense that the system was created to combat corruption in the county unit system.

“The judge was willing to believe that while Groover was a racist, he wasn’t 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 votes instead of 50 percent. But Republicans changed it back in 1996 after narrowly losing a Senate race. The effort was led by then-governor Sonny Perdue (R), whose cousin, David Perdue, narrowly lost a 2021 runoff election for U.S. Senate 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 sessions and skirted answering whether they support the runoff system, though they keep the door open about whether the process can be reformed. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) and his staff “will be looking at the entire process for possible improvements once this one is successfully complete,” said Mike Hassinger, a spokesman.

Voting rights groups in Georgia overwhelmingly support abolishing runoffs. While many activists would like Georgia to name winners based on whoever gets the most votes, as happens in most states, others see this as an opportunity to implement ranked-choice voting or another system.

“It needs to go. It needs to change,” said Hillary Holley, executive director of Care In Action, a voting rights and labor group. “It is a relic of Jim Crow, it is suppressive, inefficient and is also fiscally irresponsible. It needs to just go away.”