The Racist Origins of Georgia's Runoff SystemRoundup
tags: Georgia, elections, Senate, Raphael Warnock, Herschel Walker
Steven F. Lawson is professor emeritus of history, Rutgers University, and author of many books and articles including Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America Since 1941.
On Tuesday, incumbent Sen. Raphael G. Warnock faces off against Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a Georgia runoff election. While Warnock received more total votes than Walker on Election Day, he didn’t reach the 50 percent threshold mandated by state law, forcing a final runoff between the top two candidates.
While this is a well-known law, many people may not realize that it is rooted in Georgia’s history of white supremacy. On June 24, 1964, just days before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Georgia’s Gov. Carl E. Sanders signed into law a bill that contained the majority-vote runoff provision for all primary and general elections. It weakened the impact of the Black electorate — which had grown in the wake of civil rights activism in the late 1950s and early 1960s — by requiring their favored candidate to win a majority of votes. This task was difficult to achieve in a multicandidate contest in which Black residents held a minority of the votes, both in county and statewide elections. Although Black Georgians have greatly increased their political power since the 1960s, the runoff continues to empower White Georgians and present an additional hurdle for candidates, such as Warnock, who have overwhelming support from Black voters. This was by design and we are still feeling its impact several decades later.
The runoff provision marked the culmination of nearly a decade of efforts to revise Georgia’s election procedures in response to federal government mandates to end Jim Crow racial segregation and Black voter disfranchisement. Beginning in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned racial segregation in public schools, while Congress passed two federal civil rights acts, in 1957 and 1960, seeking to protect the right to vote. Civil rights activists took advantage of these changes and held voter registration drives and registered voting-age Black citizens. It worked. The proportion of Black voters enrolled to vote in Georgia had soared to 44 percent in 1964, up from 29 percent in 1960.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered another blow to maintaining white supremacy by overthrowing Georgia’s unique county unit system of representation that had laid the foundation for rural domination of the state legislature and restricted Black political influence. Codified in 1917, the county unit system gave each of Georgia’s 159 counties twice as many unit votes as it had representatives in the lower State House. This allowed 121 rural counties to control nearly 60 percent of the unit votes even though they represented only 32 percent of the state’s population. This ultimately disadvantaged cities such as Atlanta that contained the bulk of registered Black voters. Both the arch-segregationist governor Eugene Talmadge and one of his moderate-segregationist successors Carl Sanders agreed that the county unit system kept Georgia government “conservative … and [kept] liberals and radicals from taking over.”