Democratic lawmakers say they aren’t sure yet how Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s proposal to eliminate Georgia’s general election runoffs would affect Black voters, but they plan to find out before agreeing to support the move.
State House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Democrat, said he was in Washington, D.C., preparing for a meeting with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock on Wednesday when he heard about Raffensperger’s announcement, which advised members of the Georgia General Assembly to “eliminate” the unpopular election process.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know that that’s a bad idea,” Beverly initially said. “We all know, historically, runoffs were used to suppress the Black vote.”
But after some consideration, the Macon-area representative expressed more skepticism.
“Why would the secretary of state want to get rid of runoffs now?” Beverly asked. “It seems like once we figured out how to actually get the vote out, they change the rules again.”
Georgia’s original runoff system was created in 1964 after former state Rep. Denmark Groover, a Jim Crow-era Democrat and segregationist, brainstormed the process “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.
Runoffs used to be low-turnout races that favored Republicans, noted Democratic state House Rep. Jasmine Clark. But Democrats turned the tables on the GOP beginning in January 2021, when a rise in Black voter participation helped Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Warnock defeat their Republican opponents.
Then, earlier this month, Warnock won his second runoff race in less than two years, defeating GOP challenger Herschel Walker in a historic runoff election, again partly due to the Black vote. More than 3.5 million people cast ballots in the race, but Black voters participated at a higher rate during the runoff (27.2%) than they did during the general election (26%), according to secretary of state voter demographic data.
Clark, who represents the Lilburn area, was busy putting the finishing touches on a House bill aimed at improving Georgia’s runoff system when Raffensperger, a Republican, proposed getting rid of the system entirely. She pre-filed her legislation on Thursday anyway in lieu of introducing it when the General Assembly reconvenes in early January.
“As much as I would love to believe that our secretary of state wants to get rid of runoff because of cost or because of any number of other issues, the truth is they want to get rid of runoffs ‘cause they’re not winning them anymore,” Clark said.
The state GOP has not released a position on the idea of ending general election runoffs, and did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Raffensperger’s recommendation came in response to Georgians’ negative reactions to the last two runoff races, according to his staff. In 2020, the state’s two U.S. Senate runoff matchups extended through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
“No one wants to be dealing with politics in the middle of their family holiday,” Raffensperger said. “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.”
In an email Friday, Raffensperger’s office said that he asked Georgia lawmakers to reconsider general election runoffs “because they are inefficient and a needless annoyance to voters who do not want to be bothered with politics while trying to spend time celebrating with friends and family over the holidays.”
“Whether or not legislators choose to eliminate General Election runoffs, and how they would do so, is up to them,” a spokesperson said via email.
Republican strategist Leo Smith said that getting rid of general election runoffs may not be an automatic win for Black voters.
“Would Black people get better justice if there wasn’t a runoff system? I don’t think anybody’s done any critical analysis of that using analytics,” Smith stated.
Getting the necessary votes from the GOP-led General Assembly to end general election runoffs is a task that could take years, according to Smith, who said the idea could divide Republicans and lead to a “very radical and very divisive Republican primary” during future election cycles.
“[Eliminating runoffs] is going to be seen by some on the right as an attack from the left that should be pushed back [against],” Smith said. “Candidates will be born out of this proposal, and they will be radical.”
New Georgia Project CEO Kendra Cotton suggested that if Republicans decide to back Raffensberger’s suggestion, it might signal that they now want to take their chances in general elections rather than risk runoff races. Cotton pointed out that Republicans, who have controlled both chambers of the General Assembly since 2004, enacted the voting restrictions in SB 202 in response to the 2020 presidential election, which was the first time Georgia went blue in nearly three decades.
“It’s not surprising that after losing, Republicans want to change the rules again,” Cotton said via email. “Even if they vote to do away with general election runoffs in the upcoming legislative session, we will be watching for — and advocating against — any and all attempts to make voting harder in Georgia.”