Is Georgia's Runoff Law Completely Racist, Or Just Kinda Racist?
Georgia appears to be all set to send two Democrats to the US Senate following yesterday's runoff elections (Rev. Raphael Warnock for sure, and probably pretty sure Jon Ossoff, too). It's a huge moment for the state where Lester Maddox was once governor. But why does Georgia even have runoff elections in the first place? Please allow us to get this feather to knock you over with: The runoff election system in Georgia is yet another leftover from the Jim Crow era. Try to pick yourself up off the floor now, please.
Back in 1963, the US Supreme Court overturned Georgia's "county unit" system for primary elections, which worked a bit like a state version of the Electoral College and gave rural counties an advantage in deciding statewide races. For most of the 20th century, of course, white segregationist Democrats dominated the South, so primary elections really decided elections, with the general elections in November largely a pro-forma exercise in defeating whatever Republican might be running.
Once the Supremes said the "county unit" primaries violated the one-person, one vote principle, Georgia adopted runoffs for primaries. Georgia even went a step further, and required that virtually all elections be decided by a majority, not a plurality, of voters. On the surface, that might ostensibly appear race-neutral: To govern, you need a majority. But as with so many voting laws ("let's have a literacy test!") it was really intended to preserve white supremacy.
The runoff system was the brainchild of one Denmark Groover, a state representative who we wish hadn't been a big ol' racist turd because "Denmark Groover" is a perfectly awesome name and he ruined it. He introduced the runoff law in 1963 to make sure that if the white vote were split among several candidates while Black voters united behind a single candidate, there'd be no chance of that Black-supported candidate winning by a plurality. With a runoff, all the white voters could vote together and negate that plurality.
Now, up until 1963, plurality voting was the norm in Georgia elections. But those interfering Supreme Court Yankees and their meddling one-person, one-vote thinking endangered white supremacy.
State Rep. James Mackay quoted Groover as having explained in a House speech that if plurality voting were allowed, like in most states, then "the Negroes and the pressure groups and special interests are going to manipulate this State and take charge."
Groover also openly advocated for the runoff proposal as a means to "prevent the Negro bloc vote from controlling the elections," in case anyone wasn't clear on the concept.
Other southern states adopted runoffs for primaries as well, but didn't bother expanding it to the general elections, presumably because they assumed no Republican would have a chance against the inevitably white candidate who won the Democratic primary. The Washington Post notes that only two non-southern states have runoff systems, but that they "almost never matter":
In South Dakota, candidates for U.S. Senate, U.S. representative and governor must compete in a runoff if no one reaches 35 percent of the vote. In Vermont, a runoff is ordered if two candidates finish with the same number of votes.
Yr Dok Zoom will add that Arizona briefly flirted with a runoff in the late '80s: After horrorshow incompetent Ev Mecham became governor by winning with a plurality in 1986, voters passed a 1988 initiative requiring a runoff if no candidate got a majority, but after one boring runoff in 1990, they went right ahead and repealed it.
As the Arizona example suggests, runoffs aren't inherently racist, but in Georgia and throughout the South in the '60s, they were sure as hell intended to be. Southern Methodist University prof Cal Jillson told the Post that white Southern segregationists' own writings and speeches of the day made their intention perfectly clear:
"People had no misgivings about stating their real intentions and stating them in racial terms," Jillson said. "The stuff that no longer passes Anglo lips, they were more than comfortable in saying."
But does Georgia's runoff system still give an advantage to white candidates? In 1990, when the Justice Department still considered racism bad sometimes, the DOJ actually tried to get rid of it in a civil rights lawsuit, as Vox explains:
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights John R. Dunne told the Los Angeles Times at the time that the runoff system has had "a demonstrably chilling effect on the ability of blacks to become candidates for public office," and called the requirement "an electoral steroid for white candidates."
The Justice Department cited elections in more than 20 Georgia counties "where at least 35 black candidates won the most votes in their initial primaries, but then lost in runoffs as voters coalesced around a white opponent."
Ultimately, though, in 1998, when the case went to trial in federal court, the plaintiffs lost. While the court agreed that "the virus of race-consciousness was in the air" when Georgia adopted the law, the plaintiffs couldn't prove that the process was still "infected thusly." More Vox:
The only large data set presented in the case came from the state of Georgia's expert witness. He looked at Georgia's primary elections from 1970 to 1995 and found that there were 278 runoffs involving a Black candidate running against a white candidate. In 85 of these cases, the candidate who won the plurality of votes in the initial primary lost in the runoff. 65 percent of those cases featured a Black candidate losing in the runoff after their initial victory. However, the defendants convinced the court that "the disparity of outcomes ... was attributable to the relative strength of individual candidates," not due to the unfairness of the runoff system.
In general, we're not fans of the runoff system, since it has that taint of past fuckery. On the other hand, it's also worth noting that under a plurality system, Raphael Warnock would have immediately gone to the US Senate after November's election. But David Perdue would have kept his seat, too, and Mitch McConnell would be Senate majority leader for at least two more years.
That said (we're running out of hands), if 2020 hadn't also included two months of Donald Trump convincing Georgia Republicans their votes didn't matter, the runoffs might also have reelected both Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.