Georgia Runoffs 101: The racial motivation and challenges behind special elections

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Two runoff elections in January will determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, shining a light on the importance of a special election with traditionally low turnout.

The 2020 election season is far from over after no candidate in the two races for Georgia’s Senate seats won the majority needed to be declared winner.

Incumbent Republican Senator David Perdue faces off against Democrat Jon Ossoff while incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler is up against Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock.

Georgia state law requires a candidate to receive 50% plus one vote in order to be declared a winner in any local, state or federal election.

As the candidates continue campaigning, they face many new challenges come Jan. 5 that they did not face on Election Day, from voter fatigue to low voter turnout.

WSAV NOW spoke to election experts and activists to learn more about how runoff elections started in the Peach State, and how voting rights groups are preparing for the runoff in less than two months.

‘A means of circumventing […] the Negro bloc vote’

Dr. Kimberly Martin, Georgia Southern University Associate Professor of Political Science, says the current runoff election law, referred to as the majority-vote runoff rule, has been in place for less than a century.

“Georgia elections were plurality votes up until around 1963,” said Martin.

This meant that whoever received the largest share of the votes in any federal, state or local election would be declared the winner, regardless of whether they won a majority.

A movement to change the law started in 1963 after Georgia State Rep. Denmark Groover introduced the majority-law runoff election bill, which eventually became a state law in 1964.

Groover introduced the change after he lost a prior election to a candidate that won enough of the African American vote to get him into office.

Page 63 of this report from the U.S. Department of the Interior details the changes and lawmaker’s motivations.

“He was able to ensure that the African American vote would not be enough to put one of his competitors ahead of him later on in the election,” said Martin.

In reports at the time, Groover admitted the new majority-vote law arose “as a means of circumventing what is called the Negro bloc vote.”

The role millennials could play

Voting rights groups across the Peach State are working to register and educate as many voters as possible prior to the Dec. 7 deadline for voter registration.

On Wednesday, Chatham County Democrats held a rally in Savannah detailing their plans to “go where the voters are” to educate them about the runoff.

Daniel Coley, the Georgia Director of the Campus Election Engagement Project, is focusing on another demographic that overwhelmingly came out to the polls on Election Day.

He and his team of fellows are working to register the youth vote, consisting of people from ages 18 to 29.

“We’re trying to engage students from both sides of the aisle, in between the aisle, nowhere near the aisle to get them the information about the people that are running,” said Coley.

Georgia’s youth vote broke nationwide records with roughly 21% of the total votes coming from young voters.

Coley hopes to maintain and increase that momentum going into the runoffs by educating current voters and registering as many 17-year-old voters who will be eligible to vote by Jan. 5.

“The youth vote isn’t just the fastest-growing bloc of voters, […] but they’re quite literally going to be voting for those who are going to be shaping their future,” said Coley.

He admits the biggest challenges have been helping younger voters understand the runoff process and why another election will take place.

Still, he says he’s encouraged to see so many young people holding their peers accountable to register and vote.

“It’s that culture of accountability and I think that it’s kind of starting to click,” he said.

Confronting challenges

Aside from taking place during a pandemic, the runoff election at the beginning of next year will be extremely different from the general election.

Martin says runoff elections usually experience low voter turnout, and typically these types of elections favor the Republican candidate.

As with all things that have occurred within the last year, this runoff could go in an unexpected way because of present concerns among Republican voters about the integrity of voting systems.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said GOP attacks on Georgia’s voting systems could cause Republican voters to not cast a ballot, issuing a potential blow to incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

With that in mind, Martin says it’s extremely important for candidates on both sides to focus on messaging that will motivate voters to the polls and will help them fight past voter fatigue.

“If you can say something like health care is at stake, and if we don’t elect, you know, this particular candidate, then we might not have a chance to make changes in healthcare,” she said. “I think that will resonate a little bit more with voters than simply, we need control of the Senate.”

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