Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wants to end general election runoffs
Georgia's top elections official urged lawmakers on Wednesday to end general election runoffs — this month's bitter Senate contest was the latest example — but offered no specific proposals, saying there is a "wide range of options."
The push by Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to discard the unusual format for general elections comes after high-profile Senate races went into overtime this year and in 2020, with Democrats winning each time. Democrat Raphael Warnock has twice won runoffs, including his Dec. 6 victory over GOP challenger Herschel Walker. Warnock's win securing his first six-year term widened Democrats' majority in the Senate to 51 seats.
Raffensperger said in a statement that Georgia is "one of the only states that always seems to have a runoff" and that the legislature should "consider reforms." Georgia is one of four states that have runoffs in general elections, though only Georgia and Louisiana use them for all races. Nine states hold runoffs in primaries, though the rules vary.
Georgia lawmakers said possible options include lowering the threshold for winning an election to a 45% plurality or using ranked choice ballots for voters, as some other states do, to designate additional choices beyond a first candidate, allowing for an instant runoff.
Under current Georgia law, if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in a primary or general election, the top two finishers advance to a runoff election.
In most states, the candidate who earns the greatest number of votes, even if that is far short of a majority, wins a party primary or general election. But most Southern states require runoffs in primaries, an outgrowth of a time when white supremacist Democrats were the overwhelming majority and sought to consolidate support behind one candidate to prevent splits in general elections that could threaten their rule.
Georgia went one step further in the 1960s and also required runoffs for general elections, a move the sponsor said was meant to bolster white rule. 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."
While legislation was introduced in the 1980s to repeal the majority-vote requirement in favor of a plurality system, those efforts were unsuccessful. The Justice Department separately attempted to challenge Georgia' voting requirement through a lawsuit filed in 1990 under the Voting Rights Act. John Dunne, then 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."
Raffensperger's spokesman said the secretary of state was unavailable for interviews this week and that it is up to lawmakers to decide on any changes. Raffensperger is not proposing altering the requirement for runoffs after party primaries.
GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, incoming Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who will preside over the state Senate, and representatives of the state Republican and Democratic parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday. A big turnover among the General Assembly's leadership is expected to mean a slow start to legislating and possibly a limited appetite for big changes in the session that begins Jan. 9.
State Rep. Alan Powell, a Republican who has been the vice chairman of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity, said he would not support changes that would let people win elections with less than a majority.
"As a philosophical point, if you're going to have an elected person represent you, they need to have at least 50 plus 1% of the voters to ratify their elections," Powell said Wednesday.
But Democratic state Sen. Elena Parent said she had heard discussion about lowering the threshold to avoid a runoff from the current majority to a requirement of 45%. Parent said she would be in favor of at least a trial of instant runoffs because runoffs in many local elections have very low turnout, which she said is a "very undemocratic" way of determining elections.
State Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat, said she would be "shocked if we didn't see several versions of plurality or instant runoff proposed."
Powell said ranked choice voting was discussed in 2021 when Georgia overhauled its election law, but that it only won support for overseas voters as a way to cut the time for runoffs from nine weeks to four weeks.
When no one reached the 50% threshold in either of two U.S. Senate races two years ago, the runoff election was held nine weeks later, on Jan. 5, 2021. Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff defeated Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively.
Changes in a 2021 election law meant that the final day of voting in this year's runoff election was just four weeks after the general election. That shortened runoff period presented a challenge for county election officials, particularly with the Thanksgiving holiday falling in the middle.
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