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The curious debate about the future of Georgia’s runoff elections

As Georgia considers whether to keep its system of runoff elections, let's not forget why the status quo was created in the first place.


As Election Day 2022 came to an end, Sen. Raphael Warnock had reason to be pleased: While Republicans scored clear victories in nearly all of Georgia’s statewide elections, the Democratic incumbent senator received more votes than his GOP rival, Herschel Walker.

In most states, that would be the end of the race. But Georgia is one only two states — Louisiana is the other — in which a candidate has to win a general-election majority in order to prevail. Warnock’s 49.4% of the vote was a plurality, not a majority, so the candidates advanced to a runoff held on Dec. 6. The senator, we now know, won that election with more than 51% of the vote — two years after Warnock was also elected in a runoff.

But as the dust settles on one of the nation’s most closely watched contests, there’s a new conversation taking shape about whether Georgia’s system of elections should be more in line with nearly every other state. NBC News reported:

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Wednesday called for the Legislature to end general election runoff contests. ... Responding to requests from NBC News for more information about Raffensperger’s opposition to runoffs, a spokesperson for his office said that election workers are “burned out” at the end of a long election season and that runoff elections are disliked by candidates, voters, campaigns and county workers alike.

“No one wants to be dealing with politics in the middle of their family holiday,” the Republican secretary of state said in his written statement. “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.”

It’s a fair point. In fact, everything Raffensperger and his office said is persuasive: The system isn’t popular; it isn’t convenient for anyone involved; it creates a burden on election officials; and most states have the sense not to bother with such a model, especially when there are effective alternatives.

But let’s not overlook the details that Raffensperger and his office neglected to mention.

For example, when Georgia Republicans approved new voting restrictions last year, the measure shrunk the time period between the general and runoff elections from nine weeks to four, while simultaneously reducing early voting. This, predictably, had the effect of making the system more burdensome on everyone, from voters to candidates to election officials.

In other words, the secretary of state is urging Georgia Republicans to help address a problem that Georgia Republicans created.

Let’s also not forget why the state has this system to begin with. A Washington Post report recently explained:

Georgia’s system was created in 1964 after the urging of Denmark Groover, who blamed Black voters for a reelection loss and proposed runoffs. Groover later acknowledged the runoff system was intended to suppress Black political representation. While runoff elections had existed for decades in Southern primaries, Georgia’s enthusiastic adoption of two-round voting came as a way of “ensuring a conservative White candidate won an election,” said Ashton Ellett, a political historian and archivist at the University of Georgia.

Or as Alex Wagner put it on the show last night, the system is “an electoral relic of Jim Crow.”

They’re details to keep in mind as GOP policymakers consider Raffensperger’s request for reforms.