Georgia’s Perdue-Ossoff runoff a legacy of the Solid South

The January runoff between Sen. David Perdue (R) and his Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff is one of the last remaining vestiges of the Solid South, where white Democrats contorted the levers of government to hold power as long as possible.

Georgia is one of just two states, along with Louisiana, that requires candidates to reach 50 percent of the vote in November’s election to avoid a potential runoff. It is one of 10 states that requires candidates to hit a certain threshold in primary elections — from 30 percent of the vote in North Carolina to a majority in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas — to avoid a runoff in the weeks that follow.

All but two states that require some form of runoff are in the South; the lone outliers are in South Dakota, where runoffs only apply to U.S. Senate, U.S. House and gubernatorial elections, and Vermont, where runoffs are only conducted in the event of a tie.

Most states that require runoffs implemented those rules in the early part of the 20th century, said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who co-authored a history of runoff elections. Many of those rules were implemented to cement power in the hands of those who already had it — usually white male Democrats.

Those Democrats held almost complete control over Southern states.

“You didn’t have Republicans except in the mountain areas. Everything was decided in the Democratic primary,” Bullock said.

If those primary elections were fought between large fields of candidates, it was possible for a Black candidate to win a plurality of the vote as whites split among different contenders. Requiring an outright majority guaranteed that any Black candidate who finished atop a divided field would have to run against the white second-place finisher, and a usually united white electorate, which still accounted for a majority of the vote.

Keeping Black candidates out of office wasn’t the sole reason for implementing runoffs: In Arkansas, Democratic legislators created a runoff in the 1930s to box out a different segment of the electorate, local members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Requiring runoffs for a general election came from an altogether more partisan desire: Excluding Republicans, who remained deep in the minority in Southern legislatures, governorships and U.S. Senate seats until the 1990s.

Georgia created its runoff system in the 1960s, after federal courts overturned an earlier system that elected statewide officials through an antiquated county unit system, which gave rural areas disproportionate electoral power. A federal court judge ruled in 1990 that the runoff did not discriminate against Black voters.

In Louisiana, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards (D) pushed through a jungle primary system — in which candidates of all parties run together, with the top two vote-getters advancing to a later runoff if no one achieves a majority — after he survived a difficult primary challenge and a runoff. Edwards faced Republican David Treen in a February 1972 general election; Treen had won the GOP primary without opposition, giving him an early financial advantage, though Edwards won in the end.

“That’s when Fast Eddie says let’s move to a jungle primary,” Bullock said.

One runoff in Georgia — between Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R), appointed to fill a seat left vacant when Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) retired for health reasons, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D) — follows the Louisiana model. Warnock and Loeffler finished atop the all-party field in November, though neither approached a majority.

The other, between Perdue and Ossoff, is the third time in recent history Georgians have had to return to the polls in January to pick a new senator following the election of a new Democratic president. In both other instances — in January 1993 and in January 2009 — Republicans won the runoff election.

With control of the U.S. Senate on the line, and after President-elect Joe Biden narrowly carried Georgia’s electoral votes, Democrats hope this time will be different. The four candidates and their respective outside allies have booked more than $100 million in advertising for the nine-week sprint to January.

Tags David Perdue Georgia Joe Biden Johnny Isakson Jon Ossoff Kelly Loeffler runoff

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