The runoff system was created in the 1960s, pushed by a segregationist state legislator angry that he had lost an election to a less extreme segregationist who he saw as having benefited from illegitimate “bloc voting” by Black people. In translation, Black people voting for the less racist candidate.
The runoff rules have been changed at various times according to what the party in power thought would have benefited them in the most recent election, but a consistent fact was that, as designed, they diluted Black political power. Runoffs provided “a second chance for the majority group to consolidate support and stymies efforts by numerical minorities to build a winning coalition,” Bernard Fraga, a professor of political science at Emory University, told The Washington Post.
By and large, in recent decades, runoffs were relatively rare and tended to benefit Republicans. There were eight runoffs between 1992 and 2015, with Republicans winning seven of them and seeing a shift in their favor in six. There have been six runoffs since 2018, with Democrats winning four. The system is no longer reliably working as designed.
Runoffs continue to disproportionately burden people of color and low-income voters, and the recent gains have come largely through grueling, resource-intensive organizing work. In addition to that organizing work and to demographic shifts in Georgia, Democrats have been helped by early voting and mail voting—especially in the past two cycles, as Donald Trump has reduced Republican use of those voting methods. Georgia Republicans have tried to crack down on that, of course, but they haven’t been able to fully stuff the cat back in the bag.
The state legislature is expected to debate changes to the runoff system in the coming year, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is advocating changes. He plans to bring three proposals to the state legislature. One would be to lower the threshold for triggering a runoff to 45%, making it easier to win the first time out. That threshold was actually in place from 1994 to 2008. Another of Raffensperger’s proposals is to expand early voting locations to reduce waiting time in large counties, which is a great idea, but has Georgia Republican Brad Raffensperger met the Georgia Republicans in the state legislature? This is not the type of change they have been enthusiastic about. Similarly, Raffensperger plans to propose ranked-choice voting. But since that system did Alaska Republicans no favors this year, their Georgia counterparts are unlikely to embrace it.
So Raffensperger’s proposals are not bad, if a little weird coming from a guy who tried to prevent early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in this year’s runoff. But they come in the context of Republicans looking at yet another round of changes to a system because it’s no longer to their partisan advantage.
Nobody knows whether Democrats will continue doing well in runoffs in Georgia. But what Democrats should care about is not how the next runoff and the one after that will go. They should, we should, care that this is a terrible system that was set up for terrible racist reasons. If Republicans want to get rid of it for the wrong reasons, well, it’s still the right thing to do.
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