Are Runoffs Racist? The Media Coverage Ignores the Democratic Purpose of Runoffs

Below is my column in the Hill on the Georgia runoff and how media stories have focused on the runoff as a racist invention. As a long-standing advocate of runoffs, I view the majority requirement for election as not just an enhancement but an embodiment of democratic values. Indeed, with the mantra this election that “democracy is on the ballot,” one would think that both parties would support such runoffs not just in Georgia but throughout the country.

Here is the column:

If one headline summed up the unrelenting narrative leading to Georgia’s midterm elections, it was supplied by the New Republic: “The Georgia Senate Contest Is All About Race, Actually.” President Joe Biden amplified that view earlier by wrongly and repeatedly claiming Georgia’s election laws are “Jim Crow on steroids.” Even as record numbers of minority voters cast ballots, the narrative continued into the race between U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and his challenger, Herschel Walker (R).

Within 24 hours of the Georgia election officially heading to a December runoff, media outlets ranging from National Public Radio to Time magazine released stories suggesting that the runoff itself is a racist invention. After all, Warnock may not have gotten a majority of votes, but he still received 1 percent more than Walker.

On NPR, host Leila Fadel sounded truly shocked as Georgia PBS reporter Stephen Fowler explained that runoffs were devised by white supremacists to counter black voters. Fadel responded: “Wow. So a law originally aimed at disenfranchising Black voters is the reason this runoff rule even exists.” Fowler also observed that Walker is “a weaker candidate … dogged by controversies” while Warnock is a “well-known figure” who seeks to be “a problem-solver who works in a bipartisan manner.”

Putting aside the obvious bias, the NPR segment reflects the continuing effort to portray the race as about, well, race. Voter suppression claims are difficult to maintain in the aftermath of record voting. Now, the runoff is the embodiment of racism.

One can wonder if these journalists would have been as aggrieved with the thought of a runoff if it was Walker who was 1 percent ahead. What is clear is the fact that both candidates being Black does not appear to change the relevancy of this talking point.

Indeed, direct racist attacks against Walker have received little comparative attention from the media, and commentators have used racial terms against Walker — as when he was subjected to an inflammatory attack on MSNBC by regular guest Elie Mystal — with little to no media outcry or network apologies.

The history behind the runoffs does show racist motivations in states like Georgia. In the 1960s, Georgia state Rep. Denmark Groover (D) introduced runoff legislation “as a means of circumventing what is called the Negro bloc vote.” However, that is not the only motivation for runoff laws, and it is not the value in their continued use.

In Arkansas, the majority rule for primaries was challenged on the same grounds of being racially motivated and maintained by the state. A federal court found a non-racial purpose in the law to require a majority-supported election as a “bedrock ingredient of democratic political philosophy.” That part of the opinion was upheld by the appellate court, though the court was reversed on other grounds.

Ten states apply this rule to primaries: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont. In my view, the value of requiring majority support in a primary is only magnified in the general election and should be required in all states.

In reality, runoffs can enhance minority voters by forcing candidates to reach out to every major voting bloc. Roughly one-third of registered Georgia voters are Black. In 2021, even critics of runoffs acknowledged that minority voters carried the day. Indeed, now-Sen. Jon Ossoff (D) was in the same position as Walker this time; he received fewer votes than the incumbent, Republican David Perdue (who came within 0.3 percent of a majority in the first-round general election), but Ossoff ultimately prevailed in the runoff.

The political motivation for requiring runoffs decades ago does not mean it remains a racist practice or has a racially discriminatory purpose today. To the contrary, some of us have advocated for the expanded use of runoff rules as an enhancement to our democratic process.

Many countries require their leaders to secure a majority of votes in either a general or a runoff election. The United States, however, allows for the selection of a leader with less than half of the nation’s support, including leaders who actually receive fewer votes than their opponents — a reality which both parties have decried following various elections of the past, depending on which side won.

Of course, the presidential electoral system is locked into the Constitution and would require a constitutional amendment to change. However, congressional races are subject to state laws like Georgia’s. By requiring a runoff, candidates are forced to appeal to a broader swath of voters beyond simply their core party constituencies.

It is an important element of any democratic system for elected leaders to speak with the authority and legitimacy which comes from being chosen by a majority of their constituents. It is particularly important in the Senate, which was designed to moderate and tamp down the impulses of the House. Senators were given longer terms and larger constituencies than House members in part to create rivaling interests, even in states that are controlled by one party.

It may also favor rapidly vanishing moderates. Due to our deep political divisions and the effect of our primary systems, moderates are as scarce today as agnostics in the College of Cardinals. Incumbents tend to be favored in primaries, and congressional districts are now heavily gerrymandered by both parties to ensure reliable results. Some states have moved to break the hold of incumbents by wisely requiring the top two vote-getters from a primary to run against each other, even if they are from the same party.

However, requiring majority support to serve in Congress is another way to push candidates to the center in deeply divided districts.

After Dec. 6, Georgians will have a senator for the next six years that a majority actually wants. Thus, Georgia’s runoff should be an example of why such majority requirements are critical to advancing democracy. If you really worry about when “democracy dies,” it is when the majority’s views do not ultimately matter. In Georgia, democracy is not just “on the ballot” — it is the ballot.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

72 thoughts on “Are Runoffs Racist? The Media Coverage Ignores the Democratic Purpose of Runoffs”

  1. Dude I’m Black! … He’s Black, He’s not Racist.
    This is America, So long as I have My Freedom of Speech,
    No one is going to shut me Up.

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