The Georgia Runoff Elections – why were they historic and why is it important?

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Joshua Woroniecki on Unsplash

Maddie Barbar, Blueprint Editor

After the monumental presidential election in November, many questions about the future of American politics remained unanswered. The Democratic candidates, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, won the presidential election and will be sworn into office on January 20th. The Democratic party won control of the House of  Representatives and Presidential offices, but the majority party of the senate still remained a question. 

Two vital Senate races in Georgia were undecided after the November election. According to Georgia law, in order for a candidate to win a political seat, they must receive a majority of votes (50%+1). If no candidate is able to win a majority of votes, a runoff election of the top two candidates is held. Georgia’s runoff system is also used in nine other states, but their rules vary as well. Many states use a strict plurality system, which basically means that whichever candidate receives the most votes wins. 

So why is Georgia’s voting system different from most US states?  Prior to 1963, Georgia used what was known as the county unit system. This system operated upon the system that urban counties were granted six votes, town counties had four votes and rural counties were given two votes. However, in 1963 this system was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court because it violated the “one person, one vote” rule, and suppressed the vote of African Americans in Georgia. Georgia then adopted the runoff election system in 1964. 

In the 1960s, a period of civil unrest and racial activism, white politicians in Georgia feared the use of a plurality voting system. They believed that if elections were left to plurality voting, the white vote could be split among several different candidates, while African Americans would, theoretically, vote collectively for an African American candidate.

It is important to note that the implementation of the runoff system was driven by racist motives. Segregationist and former member of the House of Representatives, Denmark Groover, proposed the adoption of runoff voting. When arguing for the adoption of this system Groover stated in his bill that runoff voting could “prevent the Negro bloc vote from controlling the elections.” He believed that if the white vote was split between candidates, the white majority could vote collectively in the runoff election- therefore overpowering the minority vote of African Americans. All in all, the establishment of this system ensured that the white majority of Georgia could suppress the votes of African Americans. 

Fast forward to November of 2020, the two senate races ended with no majority winners. Republican Senator David Perdue barely missed the majority threshold,d against the Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. The second race was Democrat Reverend Raphael Warnock challenging Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler in a ballot with 18 other candidates. Warnock and Loefflor received the most votes of the twenty, but neither candidate gained enough to win the majority. 

These two senate races determined whether President-elect Biden would have a Democratic or Republican senate, affecting how much of his policies and agendas that he would be able to accomplish. 

The runoff elections resulted in both Democratic candidate’s victories, the US senate will be controlled by the Democratic party. These senate victories were historical for Georgia: the peach state elected their first Black senator, Warnock, and first Jewish senator, Ossoff.