Another year, another Georgia Senate race that’s headed to a runoff election.
Neither Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock nor his Republican challenger Herschel Walker, a former football star, crossed the 50% threshold necessary to win outright on Tuesday. In consequence, they must battle at the polls on December 6.
But like last year’s races, the upcoming contest has sparked conversations about the troubling history of the runoff system, which some states began using in the final decades of the 19th century to quash Black political power.
Speaking with CNN, Gerald Griggs, the president of the Georgia NAACP, made plain some of his concerns about the state of voting rights ahead of next month’s runoff election.
In particular, he criticized SB 202, the wide-ranging elections law Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed last year, after Democrats, propelled by Black voters, triumphed in both of the state’s US Senate runoff elections.
Racial justice advocates condemned the law, saying that certain elements of it target Black voters.
“(Georgia Republicans) shrunk the time for runoff campaigns (from nine weeks to four weeks). And voter registration for the runoff ended the day before the election,” Griggs explained. “These are attempts to condense the amount of time people have to vote, and thwart mobilization, especially mobilization of African American voters.”
He added, “Politicians need to speak to voters – not try to suppress them.”
To give a little bit more historical context to the runoff system, I spoke with Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, in Texas. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What are the origins of runoff elections?
The origins of runoff elections go back to the 19th century, when, particularly, they were used in the South. The idea was that the South was only one party, the Democratic Party. There was no effective, competitive second party.
Most of the states in the South decided that democracy among White men required having a majority to win an election. And since you didn’t have a natural two-party system that would produce a winner with 50%-plus-one of the vote, they had a first election in the Democratic primary and then a runoff if no one got 50% or more, so that the person who took office would’ve gotten a majority vote in that second election.
When did runoff elections start getting their darker background story?
As we moved further into the Reconstruction era.
In several Southern states after the end of slavery and after Black men were allowed to vote, Black people were a majority of the electorate. There were some states where Black people were 40% or so of the electorate.
So, the White people who were in control of the legislatures used the runoff to ensure that if there were multiple candidates in the first election and a Black person ran first or even second, the White vote could consolidate in the runoff and defeat that Black candidate.
While that didn’t happen very many times, it was the logic after the end of Reconstruction, in the final decades of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. But by the time you got into the 20th century, Black people had effectively been squeezed out of the electorate, so the runoff wasn’t required to defeat them.
The thing I think people need to recognize is that the idea of runoff elections has been around for a long time. They were fairly innocuous until after the Civil War, but then they were conceived as a device to restrict the potential of Black people to affect election outcomes.
But that was a really fairly transient period, toward the end of the 19th century, because White people excluded Black people from the electorate by the early decades of the 20th century. There wasn’t a very long time when there was the possibility of a large Black vote affecting, let alone determining, outcomes.
The runoff election was maintained into the 20th century in the one-party South as a device to ensure that even if only White people were voting, the White candidate who took office as governor or whatever the office was would’ve gotten a majority of the White vote.
What do you make of the use of runoff elections today?
In the contemporary period – in which there’s two-party competition in the South, in which there’s a viable Democratic Party in Georgia and elsewhere and a viable Republican Party, too – often you’re going to get a majority winner since you have a viable two-party system. Sometimes there’ll be third-party candidates, and sometimes even more than three candidates. And then if the vote is very close between the candidates, as it was in this election, you could get a runoff trip you really don’t want.
I think that there’s no reason for the runoff. It serves no purpose. It’s a vestige. It should simply be discarded, and we should run plurality elections.