How Georgia’s unique runoff system came to be

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Despite new, shortened timeline, overtime battle will bring deluge of attention to Georgia

Georgians hoping for a reprieve from the nonstop attack ads and campaign mailers won’t be getting one anytime soon now that the state’s U.S. Senate race is heading into overtime.

But the inundation will be much more abbreviated this year due to the state’s new voting law, which shortened the runoff period from nine to four weeks.

While nearly a dozen other states, mainly in the South, hold primary runoffs, Georgia takes it a step futher in mandating overtime contests after general elections. That has at times put Georgia at the center of the political universe, particularly in 2008 and 2020, when the balance of power in the Senate was at stake.

The same scenario appears to be repeating itself this year. Incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock will face off against Republican Herschel Walker on Dec. 6, with Senate control potentially on the line.

ExploreRead more: Georgia’s unique runoff system shaped by long, complicated history
ExploreHow Georgia’s voting law works

Georgia laws stretching back more than a century have required candidates to garner more than 50% of the vote to win office. Most other states determine their election victors based on who received the most votes on election night, even if it’s only a plurality.

Runoffs tend to be unpredictable, since they traditionally attract only a fraction of the electorate. Runoff voters tend to be older, whiter and more conservative than those who participate in general elections.

Still, they have a way of resetting races, and on many occasions the second-place finisher in an opening round of voting ends up victorious.

“You’ve got to try to preserve the momentum that you’ve built during the campaign. But you’ve also got to restock your resources and be prepared to go back to the voters,” said Howard Franklin, a consultant who advised Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens — a candidate who placed second in the general election in 2021 and went on to win his runoff — and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during last year’s runoffs. “The issue is less about all the work you’ve done with the really plugged-in stakeholders who are paying close attention. ... It’s more about engaging the electorate who in most cases thought ‘Hey, I thought this thing was over.’ ”

Republicans have dominated statewide runoffs over the past three decades. That changed in January 2021, when Democrats Warnock and Jon Ossoff were seeking to unseat Republican incumbents and control of the Senate was on the line. Those twin contests shattered fundraising and spending records, and they prompted a parade of VIP surrogates, from then-President Donald Trump to the cast of “Hamilton.”

This year, political observers are expecting a similar spotlight.

Designing and redesigning

Georgia’s first runoffs can be traced back to 1917, part of its 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, more diverse population centers, which benefited the then-dominant Democratic Party.

The system was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1962, which ruled that it violated the principle of “one man, one vote.” Two years later, the Georgia Legislature passed a law requiring runoffs for almost all local, state and federal races.

That system continued to benefit Democrats and allowed party leaders to maintain control in unpredictable races, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor who authored the definitive book about runoff elections.

“Outside the South, you had a potential check if a party were to nominate somebody who was too extreme or just kind of a wacko: They would lose in the general election. But there was not that check in the South because there were literally no Republican candidates,” Bullock said.

Having a runoff, he said, allowed Democrats to consolidate their support behind a single candidate in a second round of voting.

Republicans began their runoff dominance in 1992, when U.S. Senate hopeful Paul Coverdell upset Democratic incumbent Wyche Fowler.

Black candidates over the years have called the system discriminatory and pushed to have it changed.

Andrew Young, who would go on to become a congressman, mayor of Atlanta and United Nations ambassador, filed a federal lawsuit against the system in 1971. The suit was tossed by the courts.

The following decade, then-state Rep. Tyrone Brooks sought to move Georgia to a plurality voting system in the Legislature.

“We kept watching Black people make runoffs in first place and then lose the second time around to whites,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2020.

When his plan 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. With the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union — and eventually the Justice Department — Brooks argued Georgia’s runoff 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.

He lost in federal appeals court.

Other critics have said the system is expensive to administer and gives local elections boards little time to prepare following primaries or general elections.

Recent changes

Lawmakers over the years have been willing to tweak the runoff rules, including changing the thresholds for when such races are triggered. But they haven’t entertained a wholesale overhaul.

Those smaller changes have at times backfired, such as when Republican incumbents Saxby Chambliss and David Perdue were dragged into costly runoffs after falling just short of outright wins during their general elections. While Chambliss was able to comfortably win reelection during his 2008 runoff against Democrat Jim Martin, Perdue ended up losing to Ossoff in January 2021, despite winning 49.7% of the vote in the general election.

In 2021, the Legislature passed an elections overhaul that made several changes to runoffs.

Lawmakers were able to shrink the period between runoffs and general elections by changing the way military and overseas Georgians vote. (Those voters are why the state had previously been under a court order to hold runoffs nine weeks after an election, to give them enough time to mail their ballots.)

Under the new system, military and overseas voters are sent instant-runoff ballots for the general election. It allows them to rank their second- and third-choice candidates upfront, rather than having to vote again in a runoff. If no candidate receives more than 50% support in the general election, votes for the highest-ranked remaining candidates would then be tallied.

The new voting law also created primaries for special elections to avoid the 20-candidate free-for-all that the 2020 race to fill the term of U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson became, thus cutting down on the potential for future runoffs.

State Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, co-sponsored the instant runoff legislation that was folded into the elections overhaul. He thinks that if ranked voting is successful with overseas and military voters, it could be expanded to all Georgia voters, making runoffs moot.

“I think it’s a better system because more people get to be involved,” said Cantrell, who is retiring from the Statehouse at the end of the year. “It encourages candidates to stick to the issues and not be ugly to each other, because if I’m not going to be your first choice, I’m hoping that I’ll be your second choice. ... I think it just lends itself to a kinder, gentler campaign.’ ”

The ACLU has criticized Georgia’s new runoff rules, saying that abbreviating the runoff period to four weeks will make such elections “virtually impossible to administer.” The civil liberties organization said the short turnaround gives counties little time to certify the initial election results and create runoff ballots.

But to Cantrell, the new system makes sense.

“I’m sick and tired of all the commercials, the mailers, the texts, the social media,” he said. “I can’t enjoy a lot of things right now because of the inundation of political advertising.”