Skip to contents

Runoff Elections Have a Racist Past: What That Means for December

Beginning in the 1960s, the system was used to ensure that Black candidates did not reach elected office.

Adrienne Jones, an assistant professor at Morehouse College, says Georgia's runoff system "was established in order to minimize Black access to statewide races.” (Getty Images)

On Dec. 6, Georgia will hold a runoff election between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker for a U.S. Senate seat. Georgia is one of 10 states that use runoffs when no candidate has gotten over 50% of the vote in the general election. 

Since they were introduced in Georgia in the 1960s, some experts maintain that runoff elections have been a tool to keep white political power and suppress the Black vote. 

“Georgia’s runoff system was established in order to minimize Black access to statewide races,” according to Adrienne Jones, an assistant professor at Morehouse College who studies history, politics, and public policy issues related to the experience of Black Americans.

Today, researchers are still trying to gauge the impact of the Election Integrity Act of 2021, aka SB 202, and its impact on Black voters in this election. The law made sweeping changes to how and when voters can vote, who is in charge of local voting decisions, and what happens after ballots are counted.

Are runoffs still seen as a tool for Black voter suppression in 2022? Has the Election Integrity Act added to the harm runoffs can inflict in diluting Black voting power?

We asked Jones about how runoffs have affected Georgia’s elections in the past and what that could mean for Dec. 6.

Capital B Atlanta: How have runoffs been used to suppress Black votes in the past?

Adrienne Jones: Georgia for a long time used what was called the “county unit system,” which assigned six, four, or two points to counties based on size. 

Six points for urban counties, the biggest counties where Black people tend to live, four points for town counties, medium-sized, and two points for rural counties. There are 159 counties in Georgia, and those are dominated numerically by rural counties that are generally homogeneously white. 

What the county unit system meant was that, for primaries and general elections, if someone was able to amass the majority of the county unit points — which, if you campaigned in rural districts, which candidates became adept at doing — this would mean that white people would be able to control statewide election outcomes and secure those election outcomes for white candidates.

In 1962, the Supreme Court’s decision in Baker v. Carr would strike down the county unit system. In 1964, Denmark Groover basically presented [the runoff system] as replacing the county unit system. 

So the way to look at this at the time was that if the Black candidate makes it through the initial round of the election — whether it’s general or primary — and none of the candidates earns at least 50% of the vote, well, then those folks have to go to a runoff.

And by setting it up that way, if the Black candidate survives, then the white population of Georgia can coalesce around the white candidate in the runoff, and then secure that candidate, and again maintain that white control. 

Do runoffs still work to dilute Black voting power today?

Yes, I would argue that they do, because runoffs involve less turnout than general elections for a couple of reasons. SB 202, in our state, has adjusted the timing between the election and the runoff. So it’s only four weeks now, as opposed to nine. 

We’ve got Thanksgiving coming, other issues are going to come up. But for folks who need to take off work, get transportation, make sure that they understand which polling places they’re supposed to be at, etc., this generally for Black people is more challenging. Turnout is lower, and turnout for Black people in Georgia runoffs tends to be lower.

Can you point to any local or regional examples of runoff elections being used to suppress the Black vote in recent history?

I cannot tell you about a specific race, say in the late ’60s where this worked, but I do know that this was effective, that this was the point of the establishment of the rule in Georgia, and that Georgia generally has a long history of avoiding Black leadership in statewide offices. 

Now you’ve got two Black candidates in a state that has really dedicated itself to being innovative with Jim Crow tactics. Georgia was the first in a couple of categories of Jim Crow provisions. And then even when it wasn’t first, it used them all — grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, violence, and intimidation that states were using in order to affect Jim Crow.

Georgia was using it, and then has been creative after 2020 and has instituted new methods when it’s appeared that the old methods didn’t work. The GOP didn’t get what it wanted out of the 2020 presidential election, and immediately we see a change in election rules, which is called the Election Integrity Act, which is kind of similar to the majority vote rule, which we know has an intention to limit what is considered to be a privilege — the right to vote — as opposed to making the polls as open as possible so that people can exercise what might be considered to be a right.

Is there anything else that you think is important that Black voters should know about runoffs and what their history means?

I think Black voters should know the history of this rule. If you need a reason to be motivated to plan and figure out how you can get out on Dec. 6, even if that’s a challenge, I need you to come on. It’s not guaranteed at this time period that the impact of the majority vote rule is going to result in an election for the GOP, but it’s at least worth considering and being motivated by.