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What is a runoff election, and how will it work in Georgia's Senate race?

One week until Election Day in Georgia runoff
More than 300,000 votes cast Monday in Georgia Senate runoff 04:22

Washington — While Democrats have clinched control of the Senate with victories in Arizona and Nevada, the party could end the 2022 midterm elections with an expanded majority if it is successful in Georgia, where Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker will face each other in a head-to-head matchup known as a runoff election.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger confirmed on Nov. 9 that the Senate race would advance to a runoff on Dec. 6, since none of the candidates on the ballot cleared the 50% threshold needed to declare victory. Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver won 2.1%, denying both Warnock and Walker a majority of the vote and triggering a second election to determine the winner.

This is the second time in less than two years that Georgia voters have ended up with a runoff election date. In the 2020 election, both Senate seats were up for grabs and both races headed to runoffs. Warnock and Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff ultimately defeated Republican incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, in the Jan. 5, 2021, contest. The sweep by the two Democrats solidified the party's control of the Senate.

With Georgia back in the spotlight and the midterm election season effectively extended for another few weeks, here's a look at the history of the state's runoff system, how the upcoming election will work and what's at stake.

The history of Georgia's runoff election system

Today, Georgia is one of only two states — Louisiana is the second — that requires a runoff election to be held when no candidate receives a majority of the vote. In the Peach State, the top two vote-getters advance to the second election. The other 48 states have plurality, or winner-take-all, voting, in which a candidate can win with less than 50% of the vote.

This election system dates back to the Jim Crow-era and was approved by the Georgia legislature in the 1960s. While legislation was introduced in the 1980s to repeal the majority-vote requirement and instead adopt a plurality system, those efforts were unsuccessful. 

In 1990, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit challenging Georgia's voting requirement, marking the first statewide challenge to a majority-vote system brought by the U.S. under the Voting Rights Act. John Dunne, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said the practice has a "demonstrably chilling effect on the ability of Blacks to become candidates for public office." 

Critics of the process contended that Black candidates who won a plurality of the vote against multiple White candidates often went on to lose in runoffs, since White voters would coalesce their support behind the remaining White candidate. Dunne noted that 35 Black candidates had lost recent county elections once they reached the runoff stage, according to a New York Times story at the time.

The Times noted that one of the chief proponents of the 1964 law that established the system, state Rep. Denmark Groover, said it was intended to "prevent the Negro bloc vote from controlling the elections." 

The Justice Department unsuccessfully argued in its suit that the provision was unlawfully adopted and maintained "for racially discriminatory purposes," saying it denied Black citizens an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect their chosen candidates.

At that time, Georgia was one of nine Southern states with a majority-vote requirement to win election to public office, with Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. And today, primary runoffs are still common largely in the South, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, with 10 states requiring a candidate to garner a majority of the votes to win their primary.

How does the Georgia runoff work?

Under Georgia law, the two candidates with the highest number of votes advance to the runoff election. Warnock led Walker by only about 38,320 votes with 99% of votes tallied, but fell short of the 50% needed to win outright.

If one of the candidates who is eligible to advance withdraws, dies or is found to be ineligible, the next closest vote-getter would move to the runoff.

Last year, the Georgia legislature passed a voting law that, among other changes, shortened the gap between the general election and runoff from nine weeks to 28 days.

"The lengthy nine-week runoffs in 2020 were exhausting for candidates, donors, and electors," the 98-page bill read.

This year, the runoff election will take place Dec. 6. The deadline for registering to vote in the runoff was Nov. 7, the Monday before the midterm elections, so voters who have registered since then won't be able to vote in the runoff.

Early voting in the runoff is already underway, and voters have gone to the polls in droves: On Monday, Nov. 28, Georgia voters shattered the state's early voting turnout record, with more than 301,000 casting their votes in-person, according to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The previous record of more than 233,000 votes was set on the final day of early voting in the 2018 general election.

More than 503,000 ballots have already been cast through absentee and early voting, according to the Georgia Secretary of State's Office.

The stakes

In the 2021 runoff, Warnock and Ossoff became the first Democrats elected to the Senate in Georgia since 2000, and their twin victories also delivered Democrats' their thin Senate majority. Ossoff was elected to a six-year term lasting to 2026. Warnock won the special election to serve the remaining two years of GOP Sen. Johnny Isaakson's term, who resigned. Warnock is now running for his first full term.

The party split in the upper chamber — Democrats and Republicans each control 50 seats and Vice President Kamala Harris casts tie-breaking votes — was crucial for President Biden, as he was able to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and a major climate, health care and tax plan with only Democratic support.

This election cycle, Democrats fought to maintain their hold on the Senate, and the outcome of Georgia's race could widen the number of seats the party controls from 50 to 51. CBS News projected that Democrats would keep the Senate majority with wins by incumbent Sens. Mark Kelly in Arizona and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada over their Republican challengers.

With two years left in his first term and Republicans clinching control of the House, a Democratic-controlled Senate is crucial for Mr. Biden to advance his agenda, particularly when it comes to judicial nominations.

The president has pledged to work across the aisle regardless of the final tally.

"I'm prepared to work with my Republican colleagues," he told reporters. "The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well."

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