ATLANTA – When Georgians go to the polls – again – next month to vote in the U.S. Senate runoff, they’ll be participating in a unique – and complicated – state tradition.
That’s because Georgia is the sole state to require runoffs in both primary and general elections. In Georgia, candidates must earn at least 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff.
Some other Southern states have a runoff rule in primary elections – but not for general elections like the one Georgia held this month. (Mississippi recently adopted a measure that requires general runoffs for statewide races that will start with next year’s elections.)
In Georgia, although Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock earned about 35,000 more votes than Republican challenger Herschel Walker, neither candidate crossed the 50% threshold because Libertarian Chase Oliver drew 2% of the vote. Walker and Warnock now face a runoff for the Senate seat on Dec. 6.
It won’t be Warnock’s first: He won his Senate seat in 2021 by defeating then-incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler in a runoff.
Georgia’s modern era of runoffs began when the legislature adopted a new election code in 1964, explained University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. The legislature put the runoff system in place – but excluded the governor’s race.
That presented a problem in 1966, when neither Democrat Lester Maddox nor Republican Bo Callaway could pass the 50% mark in the general election due to a write-in candidate. After court challenges, the state legislature – controlled by Democrats – was allowed to choose the governor. Lawmakers chose party-fellow and staunch segregationist Maddox.
In response, and with Maddox’s support, Georgia voters adopted a 1968 constitutional amendment requiring the governor’s race to go to a runoff in the absence of a clear-majority winner.
The state’s runoff law has not been immune to legislative tinkering since then. Back in 1992, Democrat Wyche Fowler lost his Senate reelection bid to Republican Paul Coverdell in a runoff.
Fowler had earned more votes in the general election but neither candidate crossed the 50% mark. Fowler fell to Coverdell in the rematch. The Democratic-controlled General Assembly then changed state law to require only 45% of the vote to avoid a runoff.
That paid off in 1996, when Democrat Max Cleland drew more than 45% – but less than 50% – of the vote, skirting a rematch and winning a Senate seat outright.
In 2005, the by-then Republican-controlled state legislature and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue changed the law back to the 50% threshold.
That would later prove fatal for another Perdue-family pol, David. The incumbent Republican senator – cousin of the former governor – won more votes than Democrat Jon Ossoff during the November 2020 elections but fell just short of the 50% mark, pushing the race to a runoff. Ossoff bested Perdue by about 55,000 votes in the Jan. 2021 rematch, winning the Senate seat in a runoff upset.
“It cuts both ways,” said Bullock, the UGA political scientist, about the impact of Georgia’s unique general election runoffs on political outcomes.
Some have criticized the runoff rules for ties to the state’s segregationist past. For example, a 1990 federal court challenge to Georgia’s primary runoff rule argued it was racially discriminatory and violated the U.S. Constitution.
The plaintiffs, a group of Black Georgians, argued primary runoffs are designed to keep white people in office and Black candidates out. As evidence, they pointed to statements by then-state Rep. Denmark Groover and other early supporters of the system who thought runoffs would preserve white political power. White voters could group together in a runoff to defeat a Black candidate, even if the white vote had been split initially and the Black candidate had initially drawn the most votes, the plaintiffs argued.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Groover had been motivated by “racial animus” – a fact which Groover had, in fact, confirmed in interviews. However, the three-judge panel’s 1998 ruling found the primary election runoff law was not discriminatory in intent or practice.
Despite that court ruling, many still think the runoff rule was racially discriminatory in intent.
“[The Georgia runoff rule] did not remove anyone’s right to cast a ballot, but it was commonly regarded as hampering African Americans … from making their votes count more effectively at the polls,” said a 2009 U.S. Department of Interior report.
From the point of view of political strategy, political scientist Bullock said, runoffs can provide Georgia voters an extra chance to vet candidates. Georgians who vote on Dec. 6 will experience this for themselves, when they get a final chance to weigh in on the Warnock-Walker race.
A new generation of political scientists is analyzing the law’s impact on Georgia. Kerwin Swint, J. Benjamin Taylor, and Ayla McGinnis, all of Kennesaw State University, collected data on runoff turnout, costs and attitudes in more than a third of Georgia’s 159 counties.
Using this data, the team calculated that the 2020 Senate election runoffs cost about $75 million statewide. Smaller counties face the greatest burden, since they tend to have fewer resources than large counties.
And though the Georgia runoffs draw national attention, turnout is lower than in the main elections, suggesting voters lose interest as time goes on.
One option the researchers recommend considering is Instant Runoff Voting, which allows voters to rank candidates on Election Day. The majority winner is identified during tabulation. Georgians could also eliminate runoffs, instead electing the candidate who gets the most votes in the general or primary, said Swint.
All Georgians who were registered to vote by Nov. 7 can vote in the December runoff. Early voting will begin Nov. 28.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.