Georgia’s unique runoff system shaped by long, complicated history

Georgia is one of 10 states that require a runoff if no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast in a primary election. But Georgia is alone in mandating runoffs in general elections, which is how the state is hosting two Senate contests on Jan. 5 . that will determine which party controls the upper chamber. There have been scattered calls over the years for Georgia to tweak and even end runoffs as some have criticized their . cost and turnaround time and other states have ditched their own. Race also has fueled the debate given the system’s roots in the Jim Crow era, and some have argued runoffs discriminate against Black candidates. Runoffs also are historically low-turnout affairs that attract a different electorate from general elections: one that’s generally older, whiter and more conservative. Several states have rethought runoffs. Florida abolished its system in 2005, and in 2016 Maine voters chose to adopt a ranked choice voting system with an “instant runoff,”. in which voters rank candidates in order of preference on their general election ballots. Georgia has tweaked its runoff rules over the years but has kept the system in tact. There’s been little discussion of changing the rules, especially with the GOP holding all major offices and carrying all past statewide runoffs. That could change if incumbent U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are defeated in January’s runoffs

Race, turnout, costs fuel decades-old debate

Georgians sifting through piles of campaign mail mixed in with their holiday cards can blame the state’s unique runoff system, which has survived multiple legal and political challenges since it originated more than 100 years ago.

Georgia is one of 10 states, mainly in the deep South, that require a runoff if no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast in a primary election. But Georgia is alone in mandating runoffs in general elections, which is how the state is hosting two Senate contests on Jan. 5 that will determine which party controls the upper chamber.

There have been scattered calls over the years for Georgia to tweak, overhaul and even end runoffs as some have criticized their cost and turnaround time and other states have ditched their own. Race also has fueled the debate given the system’s roots in the Jim Crow era, and some have argued runoffs discriminate against Black candidates.

The process, however, has largely remained unchanged for six decades, and today’s state leaders have shown little appetite for altering it — at least for now.

A voter participates in the first day of early voting for the Georgia US Senate runoff election at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia, on Dec. 14, 2020.
A voter participates in the first day of early voting for the Georgia US Senate runoff election at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia, on Dec. 14, 2020.

Credit: EPA

Credit: EPA

Republicans have won all eight of the statewide runoffs that have been held since 1992, but the process was implemented when Democrats held an iron grip over state politics.

Runoffs arrived in Georgia in 1917 as part of a new county unit system that allotted votes by county, not the popular vote. That gave rural, largely white counties more of a say than the state’s urban population centers.

The Supreme Court deemed that system unconstitutional in 1962, ruling that it violated the bedrock principle of “one man, one vote.” So Georgia legislators got to work writing a new election code, and what was ultimately signed into law in 1964 required runoffs for almost all local, state and federal races.

The majority-vote requirement made it harder for fringe candidates to win primary elections, forcing office seekers to appeal to a larger segment of the party during a runoff, according to Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist who wrote the definitive book about runoff elections in 1992. In Arkansas, for example, Democrats implemented their runoff system in part because they feared a Ku Klux Klan takeover of the party.

“By requiring a majority in a second round (of voting), you encourage the candidates to broaden their message, moderate some things they’d said…and then somebody can say ‘I was the choice of most voters,’ rather than being a splinter candidate,” Bullock said.

Runoffs were also appealing to Democratic bosses because they gave the party an opportunity to unify around a single candidate following divisive primaries, handing them an advantage ahead of the general election against the then-weak Republican Party.

The Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
The Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘Electoral steroid’

Critics say the system is expensive to administer and gives local elections boards little time to prepare following primaries or general elections. And it tests the patience and stamina of already exhausted candidates and voters.

“It’s utter misery for everyone involved, other than the people getting a cut of the TV and mail buys,” said Brian Robinson, the owner of an Atlanta public relations firm who was Gov. Nathan Deal’s communications director during the 2010 Republican primary runoff. “No one, including the four (current U.S. Senate) candidates, wants to be in the middle of this.”

Runoffs also are historically low-turnout affairs that attract a different electorate from general elections: one that’s generally older, whiter and more conservative.

Former state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat, sought to nix runoffs after he was first elected to the Legislature in 1980. He pushed for the plurality system used in most other states in which the candidate that earns the most votes wins outright.

“We kept watching Black people make runoffs in first place and then lose the second time around to whites,” Brooks said in a recent interview.

Reps. Tyrone Brooks Sr. (D-Atlanta), left, and Mike Coan (R-Lawrenceville) take time following the Jan. 26, 2005, Legislative session to go over a package of bills to remove Jim Crow-era segregation laws from Georgia code.
Reps. Tyrone Brooks Sr. (D-Atlanta), left, and Mike Coan (R-Lawrenceville) take time following the Jan. 26, 2005, Legislative session to go over a package of bills to remove Jim Crow-era segregation laws from Georgia code.

Credit: BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

Credit: BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

When Brooks’ push failed to gain traction in the statehouse, he filed a class action lawsuit with more than two dozen Black legislators and civil rights leaders in federal court. The case alleged the system violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by diluting Black voting strength, since white voters tended to coalesce around white candidates during runoffs.

Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the plaintiffs detailed dozens of examples of Black candidates losing in runoffs and cited comments made by Denmark Groover, the state legislator who authored the state’s election’s law in 1964. The former leader of the Georgia House and a segregationist at the time, Groover, D-Macon, testified that he originally sought to blunt the power of Black voting blocs.

“If you want to establish if I was racially prejudiced, I was,” Groover said in a 1984 deposition. “If you want to establish that some of my political activity was racially motivated, it was.”

Brooks’ case got a big boost in August 1990, when it was joined by the Justice Department. John R. Dunne, the then-assistant attorney general for civil rights, said Georgia’s runoff had “a demonstrably chilling effect” on Black candidates and acted as “an electoral steroid for white candidates.”

Majority rule

A notable opponent of Brooks’ suit was former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who had filed a nearly identical federal lawsuit against the state’s runoff system in 1971 that had been tossed by the courts.

Young had reversed course by 1990, when he was running to become Georgia’s first Black governor and on the cusp of landing in a runoff against Zell Miller for the Democratic nomination. He chalked up his previous lawsuit to misjudgment and inexperience.

“Once you begin to run for office,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “you realize that you have a much better chance of winning the general election if you carry a majority of the party with you in the primary.”

Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, poses for a March portrait inside the Swan House at the Atlanta History Center. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, poses for a March portrait inside the Swan House at the Atlanta History Center. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

Credit: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

After a four-day bench trial in 1996, a federal district court ruled that even though Georgia had a long history of discrimination in its elections, Brooks and his co-plaintiffs did not prove the law discouraged Black candidates or would deter them more than white candidates. Two years later, a federal appeals court concurred.

Brooks said earlier this month that he didn’t regret the lawsuit - and that the same problems exist today.

“We knew it was going to be a longshot, but we had to do it based on the principle of it,” said Brooks, who resigned from the Legislature in 2015 and was sentenced to a year in federal prison for tax, mail and wire fraud.

Robinson, himself a runoff critic, said Brooks’ particular argument is “from a different era.”

“I do think things are different today,” said Robinson, who also works as a Republican campaign strategist. “Raphael Warnock and Stacey Abrams have both proven that statewide Black candidates can compete.”

Tweaking the system

Several states have rethought runoffs. Florida abolished its system in 2005, and in 2016 Maine voters chose to adopt a ranked choice voting system with an “instant runoff,” in which voters rank candidates in order of preference on their general election ballots.

Stickers await voters on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 at Park Tavern in Atlanta. A heated race for Fulton County district attorney saw a light turnout at the polls.  JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Stickers await voters on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 at Park Tavern in Atlanta. A heated race for Fulton County district attorney saw a light turnout at the polls. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Georgia has tweaked its runoff rules over the years but has kept the system in tact.

After Democratic incumbent Wyche Fowler lost his U.S. Senate seat in a 1992 runoff, the state legislature made it easier for candidates to avoid overtime contests by lowering the winning threshold from 50% to 45%. That decision benefitted Democrats four years later when Max Cleland won Sam Nunn’s Senate seat with less than a majority of the vote.

Republicans, still smarting from Cleland’s win, reversed that change when they won control of the legislature in 2005. That decision stung three years later when GOP U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss was dragged into a runoff against Democrat Jim Martin after falling just short of a majority in the general election. (Chambliss ultimately won by 15 percentage points.)

One of the biggest changes came in 2012, when a court ordered Georgia to lengthen the runoff period for U.S. Senate and House contests to nine weeks. The decision aimed to provide more time for members of the military and Georgians living overseas to cast absentee ballots — it’s also why the upcoming Senate contests are being held in January.

Since then, there’s been little discussion of changing the rules, especially with the GOP holding all major offices and carrying all past statewide runoffs. That could change if incumbent U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are defeated in January’s runoffs.

“What we’ve seen in Georgia with both parties is that change comes when partisan advantage changes,” said Robinson.

PRIOR RUNOFFS

Prior to this election cycle, Georgia has held eight statewide general election runoffs.

Even though the current system was designed by Democrats in the early 1960s, Republicans have won all of the overtime contests. (Lauren “Bubba” McDonald was a Democrat when he won his Public Service Commission race in 1998 but has since switched parties.)

Five of the eight overtime races were for lower-profile Public Service Commission seats, two were for U.S. Senate and one was for secretary of state:

U.S. Senate

1992 – incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler v. Republican Paul Coverdell

General election leader: Fowler + 1.6%

Runoff winner: Coverdell +1.3%

2008 – incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss v. Democrat Jim Martin

General election leader: Chambliss +2.9%

Runoff winner: Chambliss +14.9%

Public Service Commission

1992 – Republican Bobby Baker v. Democrat John Frank Collins

General election leader: Baker +0.7%

Runoff winner: Baker +13.6%

1998 (special election) – incumbent Democrat Lauren “Bubba” McDonald v. Republican Jim Cole

General election leader: McDonald +15.8%

Runoff winner: McDonald +31.4%

2006 – incumbent Democrat David Burgess v. Republican Chuck Eaton

General election leader: Burgess +2.6%

Runoff winner: Eaton +4.4%

2008 – Republican Lauren “Bubba” McDonald v. Democrat Jim Powell

General election leader: Powell +0.6%

Runoff winner: McDonald +13%

2018 - incumbent Republican Chuck Eaton v. Democrat Lindy Miller

General election leader: Eaton +2.1%

Runoff winner: Eaton +3.5%

Secretary of State

2018 – Republican Brad Raffensperger v. Democrat John Barrow

General election leader: Raffensperger +0.4%

Runoff winner: Raffensperger 3.8%

(Numbers have been rounded)

Sources: Secretary of State’s office, FiveThirtyEight, AJC archives

-Tamar Hallerman

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