What is a runoff election?
Georgia state law specifies that when two candidates are running against one another in an election, one of the candidates must receive more than 50% of the vote to be declared the winner. In the November 8th election, the results were that Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidate received 49.4% of the votes, Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate received 48.5%, Chase Oliver, the Libertarian candidate received 2.1% of the votes.
Because no candidate had more than 50% of the vote, Georgia State law outlines a runoff election as the next step to determine the winner between the two highest polling candidates.
Georgia and Louisiana are the only two states in the United States that don’t declare the winner of the election by a simple majority.
The origin of the runoff election
In the 19th century when emancipated Black men were granted the right to vote, there was a perceived threat, because of the nearly 3 million enslaved people in southern states, that these new voters might actually cast their ballots and win elections in landslides. This is the beginning of the era of systematic suppression of Black Southern votes, of which the runoff election is one manifestation.
Many practices were concerted efforts to disenfranchise Black Americans and often turned violent. Before the runoff was the tool of choice for voter suppression, the county unit system was used in Georgia from 1917-1962. In this system, counties were allocated votes regardless of the population and they were classified as either rural, urban, or town counties. The candidate who won the popular vote won all the votes, much like the Electoral college. The rural counties — even the incredibly sparsely populated ones — would receive two votes and the urban counties would receive six votes. But with only eight urban counties in Georgia and 30 town counties in Georgia, the rural counties far outweighed the competition. For an example, three white rural counties with only 7000 actual voters were given the same amount of votes in this system (6 votes) as the most populous county in the state with 500,000 voters. This created unbeatable margins for Black vote, locking them out of legislative processes.
In 1962, the Supreme Court addressed this voter suppression tactic and others like it and reaffirmed that one person = one vote and this ended the county unit system in Georgia. But it didn’t take long for the runoff election process to step in as the next blatantly racist effort to block Black voters.
At the height of the civil rights movement, the runoffs were introduced by a number of legislators, many who were openly racist, as an attempt to try to recreate the effects of the county unit system. State Representative Denmark Groover admitted in a 1984 deposition, “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.”