'Vote one last time': How Georgia runoff elections work and why they exist

Georgia’s Senate race is headed to a runoff, a high-stakes showdown election in which there are only two candidates on the ballot.

Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, whose election rivalry was billed as one of the most consequential races in the country, were in a virtual dead heat with each garnering about 49% of the vote out of the 3.9 million ballots cast, while Libertarian Chase Oliver captured the final 2%. But since no candidate captured more than 50%, according to Georgia law the top two vote getters — Warnock and Walker — will go head-to-head in an election slated for Dec. 6.

“There will be a runoff,” Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who won his own midterm reelection bid, flatly said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon at the state’s capitol. “I ask the voters to come out and vote one last time.”

A few dozen people on folding chairs applaud and hold their hands up. One holds a sign that reads: Warnock, U.S. Senate
Supporters of Sen. Raphael Warnock listen as he speaks Monday in Columbus, Ga. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Because control of the upper chamber of Congress may hinge on who wins this Senate race, many Georgia residents are already bracing to once again become the epicenter of the political universe.

In most states, election winners are determined by plurality, or whichever candidate captures the most votes. But 10 states, most in the South, including Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, have some form of a runoff election in their primary races, with varying thresholds. Georgia is the only state that has runoffs for general elections.

In fact, this is the third time in the modern era that partial control in Washington may fall to Georgia.

In January 2021, two Senate candidates, Warnock and Jon Ossoff, beat their Republican opponents in a pair of Georgia runoffs that gave Democrats a razor-thin majority in the Senate, and therefore control of Congress. And in 2008, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss beat his Democratic opponent to deny Democrats a 60-seat supermajority in the Senate under newly elected President Barack Obama.

A half dozen people are visible behind a rope holding signs and handheld Puerto Rican flags. One sign reads Herschel for Senate. Another reads Eviction notice, R. Warnock, Nov. 8, 2022.
Supporters listen to Herschel Walker at a campaign stop in Macon, Ga., on Oct. 20. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

This runoff election, however, will be different from the last two, as the time has been shortened from nine weeks to four with the passing of the wide-ranging and controversial S.B. 202 election law. And millions of dollars, in a Senate race that already set a spending record, are expected to be spent further on more television ads and statewide canvassing in the coming weeks.

“Georgia knows how to win a runoff: robust organizing and field operations in every single region of the state,” Hillary Holley, the executive director of Care in Action, a progressive grassroots organization, said in a statement provided to Yahoo News.

A runoff is nevertheless generally draining for everyone involved. For campaign teams that have often been working long hours for two years, it sends the final sprint into overdrive. Voter fatigue begins to set in as well, and runoffs are costly for state election boards that have to bear the brunt of an exhaustive process.

Raphael Warnock holds a microphone to his mouth.
Warnock speaks to supporters in the parking lot of Abundant Life Full Gospel in Columbus, Ga., on Monday. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Voters in these elections are also typically older, whiter and more conservative, and runoffs generally have lower turnout than general and primary races. But they also have a way of rebooting a race.

“You’ve got to try to preserve the momentum that you’ve built during the campaign. But you’ve also got to restock your resources and be prepared to go back to the voters,” Howard Franklin, a political consultant who advised Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who won his own runoff in 2021, told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. “The issue is less about all the work you’ve done with the really plugged-in stakeholders who are paying close attention. ... It’s more about engaging the electorate who in most cases thought ‘Hey, I thought this thing was over.’”

That confusion is not accidental.

Experts say runoff elections are one of many tools created by Georgia politicians to diminish the power of Black voters. Georgia had for decades awarded votes by county, in lieu of the popular vote, as a way to give rural, mostly white voters the edge over growing metropolitan areas of a more diverse electorate. Georgia created the runoff election when the county-vote system was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

Campaign signs next to a road. One reads Herschel for Senate. The other reads Jesus is pro-life, what are you for?
Signs in Ivey, Ga., on Nov. 6. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Although Georgia had a large Black population, white voters were a majority and could more easily band together in a one-on-one race against politicians who backed civil rights. At the time, the Democratic Party was composed of conservative segregationists who dominated elections across the South. Other tools were also used to oppress recently freed Black voters at the time, including racist poll taxes and literacy tests at the ballot box.

Runoff elections “trace their lineage back to an era when there was only one party in politics,” Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, told the Washington Post. “Back in the day when the South was one-party Democratic, the runoff was often the determinative election. So you often had more people participating in the runoff than in the original primary.”

Through the years many Black leaders have called the runoff elections discriminatory, as many Black candidates led outright in the initial election only to lose in the runoff. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Georgia to do away with runoffs when John Dunne, then assistant attorney general for civil rights, said the runoff system was “an electoral steroid for white candidates.” That lawsuit was unsuccessful.

The 2022 runoff, ironically, will be an exception to this history. Whether Walker or Warnock wins the Dec. 6 race, the next U.S. senator for Georgia will be a Black man.


Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Brynn Anderson/AP, John Bazemore/AP