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Secretary of State Calls to ‘Eliminate’ General Election Runoffs

Critics say Georgia’s unusual system was created in the 1960s to dilute the power of Black voters.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger issued a statement Wednesday urging the General Assembly to eliminate the runoff system for general elections, saying, “No one wants to be dealing with politics in the middle of their family holiday.” (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wants to “eliminate” the state’s general election runoffs, a system many say was created in the 1960s to mitigate the impact of Black voters on election outcomes.

Georgia is one of only two states that requires candidates to face off for a second time if none receives more than half of the vote in a general election. Raffensperger’s request comes eight days after U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, won his second runoff race in less than two years.

Raffensperger, a Republican who has been in charge of running elections at the state level since 2018, issued a statement on Wednesday calling on the Georgia General Assembly to “visit the topic of the General Election Runoff and consider reforms” once its members reconvene in January. 

General election runoffs are held four weeks after the November election, so they fall between the Thanksgiving and winter holidays.

“No one wants to be dealing with politics in the middle of their family holiday,” Raffensperger said in a statement posted on the secretary of state’s website. “It’s even tougher on the counties who had a difficult time completing all of their deadlines, an election audit and executing a runoff in a four-week time period.”

Georgia NAACP President Gerald Griggs said his organization agrees with Raffensperger that Georgia’s runoff system should end. But while the secretary of state primarily took issue with the timing and workload of runoffs, Griggs pointed to their racist history.

“From its origins, with the intent to suppress the African-American vote in the past, it’s long past time to rid Georgia of this insidious form of voter suppression immediately,” he told Capital B Atlanta via text Wednesday morning. 

Pro-segregation former state Rep. Denmark Groover helped create Georgia’s runoff system in the 1960s “as a means of circumventing what is called the Negro bloc vote,” according to two local newspapers quoted in a 2007 study by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Historic Landmarks Program.

Historically, the runoff system gave white voters a way to “coalesce” their support around white candidates when Black candidates made it to the runoff stage, according to Morehouse College assistant professor Adrienne Jones.

But Griggs also said the timing of Raffensperger’s statement is “very curious.” He suggested that Republicans, who have passed laws that opponents criticized for limiting voter access and tilting election odds in Republicans’ favor, may now be looking to sway voters by proposing a policy change that has bipartisan support.

Raffensperger has received mainstream praise and some support from Democratic voters for not helping then-President Donald Trump cheat to win Georgia’s electoral votes in 2020.

“I think the realization is setting in that winning elections should be done on policy and not voter suppression,” Griggs said.

The secretary of state’s office says Raffensperger decided to call for an end to general election runoffs in response to people’s negative reactions to the last two. Georgia’s 2020 U.S. Senate runoff races extended over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

“Everybody hated it,” a spokesperson said via email. “They also hated this most recent general runoff of four weeks. … Everybody hates runoffs, including the candidates and the media, but most especially the voters of Georgia.”

Raffensperger’s office also pushed back against the contention that general election runoffs were created for racist reasons, arguing it was the primary election runoff system that was created to suppress Black votes.

“We are asking the legislature [about] eliminating the general election runoff, which was a statewide referendum in 1968 in response to Democrats selecting Lester Maddox as governor,” the spokesperson said.  

Raffensperger, according to his staff, did not consult with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp before calling for an end to the runoff’s system.

Warnock’s office hasn’t responded to an emailed request for comment. The Georgia Democratic Party declined to comment on the announcement, and the state GOP didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

Ending general election runoffs in Georgia would require approval from both chambers of the state assembly and Kemp’s signature. Kemp’s team declined to comment Wednesday on Raffensperger’s proposal.

“Our office does not comment on potential or pending legislation,” a Kemp spokesperson said via email.