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Democrats Work to Defy History in Georgia Runoffs That Have Favored G.O.P.

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tags: Georgia, Senate, voting rights, 2020 Election



WASHINGTON — A first-term senator in Georgia narrowly bested his opponent, outrunning his party’s standard-bearer only to face voters again a few weeks later under a quirky system that briefly made the state the center of the political universe after a hard-fought presidential election.

The year was 1992, and Senator Wyche Fowler Jr., a Democrat, had amassed more votes than his Republican opponent on Election Day. But he lost his seat three weeks later.

“Yes, I was disappointed, running six points ahead of the president and being the only state in the country that had this kind of crazy system,” said Mr. Fowler, now 80, looking back on a storied runoff election 28 years ago after Bill Clinton won the presidency.

Now that same “crazy system” that overturned Mr. Fowler’s lead, defeating a popular member of Congress known for his folksy stories, has once again seized the attention of both parties. This time, the scenario is playing out in double: Not one but two incumbents, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both Republicans, are facing runoffs to keep their seats. This time, the ramifications are even more consequential.

Georgia’s runoffs, the vestige of segregationist efforts to dilute Black voting power, will determine control of the Senate in races to be decided on Jan. 5. In the past, such contests have heavily favored Republicans because of a drop-off among Democratic voters, particularly African-Americans, after the general election.

But those intimately involved in the two previous Senate showdowns say what happened before is not necessarily predictive of the future. Demographic and cultural change has led to rapid shifts in the state, and Democrats have made concerted efforts to energize and turn out their voters, work that paved the way for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s strong showing in the state.

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But the unusual runoff rules in Georgia — which require a candidate to gain a majority of the vote to win, and automatically prompt a second contest between the top two vote-getters if no one does — are very much by design. They grew out of efforts by some white Georgians in the 1960s to keep control of the state’s political apparatus after the Supreme Court struck down a system that gave sparsely populated, heavily white rural counties more voting weight than dense urban areas that had large numbers of Black voters.

A federal study published in 2007 on the fight for voting rights described how segregationist state legislators then turned to runoffs, which many believed would reduce the likelihood that Black voters would unite behind one candidate to deliver a plurality victory while other candidates split the white vote. By requiring the winner to square off in a head-to-head race, backers of the plan were confident they could better control the outcomes.

 

Read entire article at New York Times

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