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Georgia Runoffs, a brief history

By: Evan A. Kutzler

evan.kutzler@gsw.edu

November 9, 2020

On Tuesday, November 3, 2020, Georgians cast what many voters thought would be their last ballot of this election. Yet no candidate received a majority of votes—as required by Georgia law—in two U.S. Senate races. The majority requirement is the Georgia-elections equivalent of Punxsutawney Phil seeing his shadow. No majority means the season of political campaigning and attack ads continues. Runoff elections are scheduled for December 1, 2020 (for state and local races) and on January 5, 2021 (for federal races). The federal runoffs will determine both senators from Georgia and control of the United States Senate.

Where Are We?

         It is rare for voters in any state to choose both senators in the same year. The U.S. Constitution establishes a schedule in which three classes of senators serve on different six-year cycles. The result is that about 1/3 of senators are elected every two years.

One Senate race in Georgia was typical for much of the campaign. Senator David Perdue, representing the state since January 3, 2015, had no Republican primary challenger this year. Jon Ossoff, who gained national attention in his ill-fated run to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in 2017, won the Democratic Party’s nomination in June 2020. Shane Hazel represented the Libertarian Party. As of Monday at noon, Perdue received 2,456,668 (49.7%) votes, Ossoff 2,366,838 (47.9%) votes, and Hazel 114,620 (2.3%) votes. These numbers will change slightly as more military, overseas, and provisional ballots are counted.

A second Senate campaign became necessary when Senator Johnny Isakson, citing known health problems, retired midway through his third term in office. According to U.S. law, when a senator leaves office before finishing his or her term, the state’s governor selects a temporary replacement until the next federal election. Governor Brian Kemp appointed businesswoman Kelly Loeffler to fill Isakson’s seat until the special election in January 2020.

Under Georgia law, special elections for federal offices have no partisan primaries. Anyone who pays the filing fee can be on the ballot. That meant that voters scrolled through twenty candidates this year. There were three frontrunners. Reverend Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, received the most votes, 1,612,137 (32.9%), followed by Loeffler, 1,270,141 (25.9%), and U.S. Representative Doug Collins, 978,226 (20.0%) as of Monday at noon.

In most states and in most elections, the candidate who receives a plurality (the most votes) wins. Georgia is the only state that requires a runoff in certain primary and general elections when no candidate wins a majority (more than 50%) of the vote. Perdue and Warnock both received pluralities in their elections, but neither of them received a majority of all votes cast. The runoff election on January 5, 2021 determines whether Perdue or Ossoff will represent Georgia in the regular Senate election (until 2027) and Warnock or Loeffler will serve the remainder of Isakson’s term (until 2023).

From the moment Isakson retired, it was likely the special election would end in a runoff. The sheer number of candidates in a “jungle primary” makes “50% plus one” a high threshold. It was more surprising that Perdue, who received a clear majority of the votes in 2014, missed the threshold necessary to avoid a runoff this year.

How Did We Get Here?

         Majority requirements and runoff elections have a long history in Georgia. In the early twentieth century, primary runoffs were common in southern states dominated by a conservative Democratic Party. In these states, general elections were closer to coronations than high-stakes contests, and the contest for the Democratic nomination was the real race. Supporters of the majority requirement for primary elections—and later general elections—emphasized how it ensured popular support for nominees and, later, elected officials.

Critics of the majority requirement in primary elections have argued that—in the changing era of the 1960s and beyond—majority requirements diluted African American votes and hampered more liberal candidates. According to Reid Wilson, “The runoff system is a vestige of a time when white Democrats controlled Southern politics and manipulated election rules to make sure they stayed in power.” Consider the Gubernatorial election of 1966. The Democratic primary split the electorate four ways: Ellis Arnall received the most votes (29%), followed by Lester Maddox (24%), Jimmy Carter (21%), and James H. Gray (19%). In the runoff primary, segregationist Maddox beat the more-liberal Arnall, receiving 54% of the vote and thus the Democratic nomination.

Faced with two segregationists in the general election, Arnall supporters began a write-in campaign to keep either Democrat Lester Maddox or Republican Bo Callaway from receiving a majority of the votes. Callaway received about 3,000 more votes than Maddox, but neither candidate passed the 50% threshold. At the time, the Georgia General Assembly chose the governor if no candidate received a majority. They chose Maddox.

In a decision that recognized the reemergence of a two-party system, Georgia changed its election laws to require a runoff if no candidate received a majority of the votes in a general election. While put in place in an era when Democrats dominated Georgia politics, the runoff system has—on the surface—favored Republicans over the last thirty years. According to Jacob Rubashkin of Inside Elections, Republicans have won six out of seven statewide runoff elections since 1988. In 1992, for instance, Democratic Senator Wyche Fowler received a plurality of the vote in the general election but fell .8% short of a majority. In the lower-turnout runoff election, his Republican opponent Paul Coverdell won with 50.6% of the vote.

The last time a Democrat won a statewide runoff election in Georgia came in 1998 when Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr. beat Republican Jim Cole for a seat on the Public Service Commission. In 2008, a close Senate race between Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin (49.8% – 46.8%) ended in a blowout (57% – 43%) runoff.

After 2008, conventional wisdom in Georgia held that Republicans were more likely to turn out for runoff elections than Democrats. A decade later, Rubashkin points out, there are signs this may be changing. In 2018, two statewide elections required runoffs, including secretary of state race. The runoff election, which pitted Democrat John Barrow against Republican Brad Raffensperger, saw lower turnout than the general election; however, participation dropped at a similar rate among supporters of both candidates. Raffensperger became Georgia’s secretary of state, but it was a close runoff.

Dates to Remember

In Georgia, at least, the 2020 election year began in earnest when Senator Johnny Isakson officially retired on December 31, 2019. That election year ends 371 days later on January 5, 2021. Georgia’s election laws, combined with early retirements and increasingly competitive races, mean that Georgia will be in the national spotlight for the next two months. Turnout will determine not only who wins each race but also who controls the Senate.

Eligible Georgians can check their voter registration status on the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter Page (https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do). The voter registration deadline for the federal runoff is December 7, 2020. The earliest date to register to mail an absentee ballot is November 18, 2020. Early voting begins on December 14, 2020.