A runoff election will be held in Georgia’s Senate race yet again this year. Both Herschel Walker, a former football star running back, and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock failed to reach the required 50% of the vote on Tuesday. As a result, they must compete on December 6 at the polls.
The approaching election has however spurred discussions regarding the disturbing history of the runoff system, which some states started employing in the closing decades of the 19th century to suppress Black political influence. This is similar to how last year’s elections did. Before the runoff election next month, Gerald Griggs, the president of the Georgia NAACP, expressed some of his concerns on the state of voting rights in an interview with CNN.
He specifically condemned SB 202, the expansive election law that Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp passed in 2017 in the wake of Democrats’ victories in both of the state’s US Senate runoff races, which were fueled by Black voters. Advocates for racial justice denounced the measure, claiming that some of its provisions discriminate against Black voters. “(Georgia Republicans) shortened the runoff election period” (from nine weeks to four weeks).
The day before the election, voter registration for the runoff election closed, according to Griggs. These are attempts to shorten people’s voting periods and prevent voter turnout, particularly among African American voters. “Politicians ought to speak to voters—not try to stifle them,” he continued. I chatted with Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Texas’ Southern Methodist University, to provide a little more historical context on the runoff system. We have minimally modified our talk for length and clarity.
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What Are The Origins Of Runoff Elections?
Runoff elections have their roots in the 19th century when they were most frequently utilized in the South. The Democratic Party was supposed to be the only party in the South. There was no strong, rival second party. The majority of Southern states came to the conclusion that in a democracy populated by White men, winning an election required a majority. In addition, because there was no natural two-party system that would produce a winner with 50% plus one of the vote, the Democratic primary was held first, followed by a runoff if no candidate received 50% of the vote or more, ensuring that the winner of the second election would receive a majority of the vote.
— Reverend Raphael Warnock (@ReverendWarnock) November 13, 2022
When Did Runoff Elections Start Getting Their Darker Background Story?
Black people made up the majority of the electorate in a number of Southern states when slavery was abolished and Black men were given the right to vote. Black voters made up about 40% of the electorate in various states. As a result, the White individuals in charge of the legislatures used the runoff to make sure that, in the event that there were numerous candidates in the initial election and a Black person came in first or even second, the White vote would consolidate in the runoff and defeat that Black candidate.
Though that didn’t occur frequently, that was the rationale following the conclusion of Reconstruction, throughout the later years of the 19th century, and long into the 20th. However, by the turn of the 20th century, Black voters had all but disappeared from the electoral rolls, making a runoff unnecessary. People need to understand that the concept of runoff elections has been around for a while, in my opinion.
THE SENATE STAYS 🔵
This couldn’t happen without PA! Grateful for every vote, every donation, every phone call + door knock that got us here. 🥰
Now let’s finish the job by re-electing @ReverendWarnock on Dec. 6 so I can *officially* be your 51st vote 💯
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) November 13, 2022
They were largely harmless up to the Civil War, when they were designed as a tool to limit the ability of Black people to influence election results. But by the early decades of the 20th century, White people had prohibited Black people from voting, making that period near the end of the 19th century a really brief one.
For a brief period of time, there was a chance that a sizable Black vote may influence, if not actually decide, the results. In the one-party South, the runoff election was kept up until the 20th century as a safeguard to make sure that even if only White people cast ballots, the White candidate who won the position of governor or whatever else would have received a majority of the White vote.
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What Do You Make Of The Use Of Runoff Elections Today?
In the modern day, where there is two-party competition in the South, a strong Democratic Party in Georgia and elsewhere, and a strong Republican Party as well, you frequently get a majority winner due to the existence of a strong two-party system. There may occasionally be third-party candidates and even more than three. A runoff election may result if the vote is extremely close between the candidates, as it was in this race.
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