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Understanding Runoff Elections in Georgia, and How to Ensure Your Vote Counts

What to know about the state law that dates back to the early 1960s, and still has influence in politics today.

Georgia and Louisiana are the only two states that use runoff races to decide general elections. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Georgia’s marathon midterm election season isn’t over just yet.

A Dec. 6 runoff election date has been set to decide who wins the state’s pivotal U.S. Senate matchup between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and his GOP challenger, Herschel Walker.

The race could decide the balance of power on Capitol Hill. More than 3.9 million Georgians voted in this historic general election matchup between two Black U.S. Senate candidates. Warnock received a slightly larger share of the vote — 49.42% — than Walker, who received 48.52% of ballots cast.

But neither candidate achieved the 50%-plus-one share of votes required to win the race outright, meaning a runoff election will decide the outcome, in accordance with state law.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger made the official announcement on Wednesday. 

“Our office has already begun the work to start building the ballots,” he told reporters. 

Before heading back to the polls, here’s what you need to know about runoffs in Georgia.

What is a runoff election?

A runoff election is a political contest that takes place between the top-two vote recipients in a race if none of the candidates received more than 50% of the vote during their primary or general election matchup.

In Georgia, runoff races take place four weeks after a general election. Whoever wins the contest wins the race.

Why does Georgia have runoffs?

Georgia instituted its runoff elections process in the 1960s. State Rep. Denmark Groover, a staunch segregationist, introduced related legislation a year earlier “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.

Groover had attributed his 1958 state House election loss to the Black vote, the report noted. And after winning another election in 1962, he and his white supremacist allies sought to ensure such a defeat wouldn’t happen again.

“I was a segregationist. I was a county unit man,” Groover said during a 1984 deposition hearing in United States v. Lowndes County, Georgia, according to federal records. “If you want to establish if I was racially prejudiced, I was. If you want to establish that some of my political activity was racially motivated, it was.”

Georgia’s runoff system has remained intact to this day.

Do other states have runoff elections?

Yes. Georgia and Louisiana are the only two states that use runoff races to decide general elections.

Georgia is one of 10 states that use runoff elections to ensure candidates win primary races with a majority of the votes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The others are Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Vermont.

Have there been other major runoff races in Georgia recently?

Yes. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens won a runoff race against Felicia Moore nearly a year ago, before taking office in January. Warnock became the first Black U.S. senator in state history after winning a runoff race against GOP incumbent Kelly Loeffler in January 2021.

Jon Ossoff defeated former U.S. Sen. David Purdue in similar fashion the same month.

How do runoffs impact Black voters?

As noted earlier, the creators of Georgia’s runoff system intended to use it to dilute Black people’s voting power and prevent Black candidates from winning elections.

Morehouse College assistant professor Adrienne Jones studies the history and politics of Black Americans. She told Capital B Atlanta earlier this week that the runoff system historically has allowed white Georgians to “coalesce” around white candidates when Black candidates make it to the runoff stage.

How is voter turnout for runoffs different from regular elections?

Jones argues Georgia’s runoff system is still used to dilute Black voting power in the present.

“Runoffs involve less turnout than general elections for a couple of reasons,” Jones said. “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.”

But this trend may have changed in recent years. Black turnout was higher than white turnout during the state’s January 2021 U.S. Senate runoff races, according to the APM Research Lab. 

Black voter participation rose from 29% during the November 2020 general election to 32% during the U.S. Senate runoffs, researchers found.

“This relatively high turnout propelled Democrat Raphael Warnock to become Georgia’s first-ever elected Black senator,” Craig Helmstetter wrote in his findings.

Do Black candidates tend to fare better or worse in places without runoff elections?

While the racist origins of Georgia’s runoff system are hard to refute, the effects of the system on Black candidates is a bit more complicated.

In 1990, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit that argued Georgia’s runoff system discriminates against Black candidates. John R. Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said at the time that 35 Black candidates in more than 20 Georgia counties had finished first in recent-year primary elections before losing in runoffs to a white candidate.

Kimberlyn Carter, executive director of Represent Georgia, a nonprofit, statewide leadership development initiative, says runoff races are a relic of the Jim Crow era meant to keep Black candidates from winning political offices by adding an extra hurdle and making election season last longer.

Warnock, for example, is participating in his fourth election in less than two years, not including primary season.

“Who can afford to raise the money and spend the time on perpetual elections?” Carter said. “We have to reintroduce [voters] to runoffs and remind them that the work is not done. You’ve got to do it again.

Can I vote absentee for runoff elections?

Yes, but thanks to SB 202, you have to file a request first. The deadline to file your absentee ballot request is Nov. 28.

Can I vote early?

Yes. Early voting for the Dec. 6 runoff begins on Nov. 28. Check the state’s My Voter Page to find your early voting location.