Georgia’s runoff system was created to dilute black voting power

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ATLANTA — Tuesday’s showdown between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and Republican challenger Herschel Walker is the product of an unusual general election runoff system that was pushed by a powerful Georgia segregationist who sought to blunting the power of black voters in the 1960s.

While 10 states use the second round in primary elections, Georgia and Louisiana are the only two that do so in general elections. Georgia’s system was created in 1964 after insistence by Denmark Groover, who blamed black voters for a re-election loss and proposed run-offs. Groover later acknowledged that the trickle-down system was intended to suppress black political representation.

While runoff elections had existed for decades in Southern primaries, Georgia’s enthusiastic embrace of two-round voting came as a way to “ensure that a conservative white candidate wins an election,” said Ashton Ellett, political historian and archivist at the University of Georgia.

“A second round makes it more difficult for people who have fewer resources to vote. This was before the advanced vote in person or [voting was offered] in the mail and when we had many other unfair, unjust and undemocratic policies. It was not so much for partisan advantage as it was for ideological and cultural advantage,” Ellett said.

Now, 58 years later, that system is part of the first race in history where two black men are vying for a U.S. Senate seat, after neither Warnock nor Walker won 50% of the vote in the election. of last month. Walker was born just before the system was created and Warnock was born shortly after. Neither discussed the system on the trail, and neither campaign responded to requests for comment on Georgia’s use of the runoffs.

Runoffs are common in local and short-vote Georgia races, such as contests for the General Assembly, but the race between Warnock and Walker is only the 12th statewide runoff since the setting up of place of the system.

Voting rights groups lobbied to get rid of the system. State officials estimate that administering another election will cost taxpayers at least $10 million, and campaigns and political groups are expected to spend even more than that.

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“Off-cycle elections, that is, elections not held in November of midterm or presidential years, have historically seen lower overall turnout and particularly low turnout for racial and minority groups. ethnicity,” said Bernard Fraga, a professor of political science at Emory University who studies voter turnout and demographics.

The system has added intentional friction to the democratic process and provides “a second chance for the majority group to consolidate support and frustrates the efforts of numerical minorities to build a winning coalition,” Fraga said.

The wave of electoral change that gave Georgia a runoff system came amid a fierce national fight for voting rights and discrimination in the 1960s. Activists’ longstanding work as part of the civil rights movement had drawn national attention to the struggle of black Americans in the South and closer scrutiny of the region’s and America’s discriminatory policies. entrenched white segregationist elite. Past techniques used to politically disenfranchise black Americans, including primaries open only to white voters, selectively enforced poll taxes, literacy tests and acts of terrorism, have been now banned or less effective. The proportion of black Georgians registered to vote in 1960 was 29%, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, an educational website written and reviewed by scholars; by 1964, that number had risen to 44%.

“The creativity of white politicians in the South, for over 100 years, to find ways, first, to prevent black people from voting, and then to try to make it as difficult and restrictive as possible without it appearing racist , and a violation of the Constitution, is breathtaking,” said Steven Lawson, professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University, who served as an expert witness in a Justice Department lawsuit challenging the runoff system. of Georgia in 1990.

The most pressing and important civil rights legislation was hotly debated in Congress as the Supreme Court just scrapped Georgia’s county-unit electoral system, akin to a county-based electoral college that gave weight disproportionate to voters in the state’s many predominantly white rural counties. The court ruled in 1963 that the system disproportionately empowered rural white voters over black voters and those in urban areas like Fulton County, home to Atlanta. It was the first of the “one person, one vote” High Court rulings that mandated state voting systems and congressional districts weigh every vote roughly equally.

Georgia needed a new electoral system. In Step Groover, one of the state’s most influential lawmakers and a hardline segregationist.

“He had been a leading segregationist. He was the main proponent of the county unit system. He sponsored school segregation bills and he sponsored the bill that changed the [Georgia state] flag “to add the Confederate battle emblem in 1958,” said J. Morgan Kousser, a historian and social scientist at the California Institute of Technology who has served as an expert witness in cases challenging the runoff system and numerous others. civil rights cases across the South.

Groover “may have been the smartest or hardest-working legislator in the chamber,” according to Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia who has researched and written several books on Georgian politics, including a book on the trickle system.

“He would read all the legislation and ask pointed, often difficult, questions of lawmakers, so much so that his name became a verb: ‘To Grooverize,'” Bullock said.

Yet his influence in the legislature was cut short in 1958, when Groover lost his re-election bid to another white candidate, whom Groover blamed on “bloc voting”, a euphemism he later admitted in court meant that black voters backed his more moderate rival by enough votes to defeat him in a close majority election.

Even with limited access to the ballot, a marginal number of black voters could help elect a less radical segregationist in parts of the South, Kousser said. Headlines in the Macon Telegraph chronicled the “bloc vote controversy” in which Groover and his supporters effectively argued that black votes amounted to fraud.

After subsequent re-election, Groover proposed a bill enacting runoff elections to stop “block voting” in any new system. A 1964 Election Law Review Committee passed a version of Groover’s proposal weeks before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed.

“When the county system disappeared, people like Groover were looking for ways to make sure black voting power was diluted,” Lawson said.

The system was codified in the state constitution in a 1968 referendum after Georgia’s political machine was shocked by the chaotic 1966 election of Lester Maddox, a populist arch-segregationist, as governor. Much of the state’s political establishment thought Maddox would have lost in a runoff to a less outspoken segregationist, Bullock said, but the governorship was the only office the 1964 changes hadn’t come to. not enforced due to a 19th century legal quirk.

Groover was so committed to the old state election laws that at the end of the 1964 legislative session, signaling the end of the unity county system and amid a tense struggle for congressional redistricting, Groover crawled out to the bedroom balcony to remove his official clock in a symbolic spectacle of stopping time for him.

From its inception through the 1980s, civil rights groups argued that the process was intentionally burdensome for counties, campaigns and black political activists. Coupled with policies such as harsh gerrymandering and countywide elections, many black candidates outside of Atlanta struggled to succeed alongside the state’s still Byzantine election rules.

The system came under federal scrutiny in 1990, when the Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union jointly sued Georgia over its runoff policy, describing the practice writ large as a way to exhaust and dilute black votes. A key part of this litigation: the confessions of Groover who, late in life, openly acknowledged the racial motivations behind his policies.

According to a court deposition, Groover told federal investigators that “I was a segregationist. I was a county unity man. But if you want to establish whether I was racially biased, I was. If you want to establish that some of my political activity was racially motivated, it was.

The department lost in federal trial and appellate court. The judges accepted the state’s defense that the system was created to combat corruption in the county unit system.

“The judge was prepared to believe that even though Groover was a racist, he was not responsible for this system,” Lawson said.

In 1992, the state legislature changed the threshold for a runoff, requiring a candidate to get at least 45 percent of the vote instead of 50 percent. But Republicans changed it in 1996 after narrowly losing a Senate race. The effort was led by then-Governor Sonny Perdue (R), whose cousin, David Perdue, narrowly lost the 2021 US Senate runoff to Democrat Jon Ossoff.

In 2021, Republicans in Georgia passed a sweeping and controversial election law that shortened the time between an election and a runoff from nine to four weeks, confusing and stressing election administrators.

Republicans in power in Georgia have largely avoided the question in legislative sessions and avoided answering whether they support the runoff system, though they are keeping the door open on whether the process can be reformed. Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) and his team will “review the entire process for possible improvements once it is successfully completed”, said Mike Hassinger, a spokesman.

Voting rights groups in Georgia overwhelmingly support the abolition of runoffs. While many activists would like Georgia to name the winners based on who gets the most votes, as happens in most states, others see it as an opportunity to implement ranked voting or a other system.

“It has to go. This needs to change,” said Hillary Holley, executive director of Care In Action, a voting rights and labor group. “It’s a relic of Jim Crow, it’s repressive, inefficient and it’s also fiscally irresponsible. It just needs to go.”

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