The Racist Origins of Georgia’s Runoff Elections



  • Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker will enter a runoff election next month for Georgia’s Senate seat.
  • Georgia’s runoff election was first introduced in 1964. 
  • Runoff elections were the brainchild of Denmark Groover Jr., a vocal segregationist who wanted to split the Black vote.

On December 6, Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker will face each other for a second time in the race to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate. A runoff election was called after the two candidates failed to gain a clear majority of votes during Wednesday’s election. By Georgia election law, if no candidate obtains more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will enter a runoff election four weeks after Election Day.

The unusual election system — Georgia and Louisiana are the only two states with a runoff for both primary and general elections — isn’t a new initiative. Adopted in 1964, runoff elections were first introduced by Denmark Groover Jr., a Democratic state lawmaker from Macon, Georgia, and a vocal segregationist. His connection to the idea was motivated by personal experience. In 1958, despite carrying the white vote, Groover was defeated in his race for Senate by an opponent with more support from Black voters. A 2007 Interior Department report refers to Groover, saying, “The Macon politico blamed his loss on ‘Negro bloc voting.’” As a means to set back Black male voters, Groover proposed majority-vote runoff election rules to all local, state, and federal offices. 

Ultimately, Groover’s intent was to disrupt Black Georgians from voting for the same candidate or party and instead mimic the voting practices of white Georgians, who split their votes among multiple candidates. The alternative would be a plurality system, which wouldn’t call for the support of numerous white voters to back a candidate supported by the Black majority. 

In 1990, the Department of Justice filed a suit against Georgia challenging the state’s election runoff system, saying that it had a “chilling effect on black political participation.” At the time, the DOJ contended that the law violated the Voting Rights Act, noting more than 35 Black candidates who had finished first in their primary elections, only to lose in runoffs against a white candidate. That lawsuit was eventually consolidated with another brought forth by a group of Black voters in 1998, though, in this case, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the plaintiffs did not adequately prove that a plurality primary system would increase “the potential [of Black voters] to elect representatives” in the absence of a runoff system.

Despite the U.S. Vote Foundation labeling Georgia’s runoff system as a “vestige of Jim Crow Georgia,” the foundation believes this year’s general election was “widely considered to have been safe and fair,” and that they have “every reason to believe the December runoff will be safe and fair as well.”

Next month’s election will mark Warnock’s second runoff for Senate. In 2020, he defeated Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a runoff race.



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