By: Terrell Jemaine Starr, The Root
Georgia voters have begun early voting in the state’s U.S. Senate January runoff that will determine the balance of power in Washington. Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are in tight races with their GOP opponents Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively. Neither candidate was able to get to the 50 percent threshold on Election Day, which is why the runoff is taking place. More than 2 million people have already voted so far and activists on the ground are continuing to help folks who haven’t cast a ballot get to the polls.
There are a lot of moving pieces and stakes in this race, so The Root is breaking it all down for you to get a better grasp of what is happening.
Why is there a runoff in the first place?
Under Georgia state law, candidates for office need to get 50 percent of the vote to win. If they do not, it triggers an automatic runoff. As The Root previously reported, Warnock, who is running against Sen. Loeffler, led all of the challengers in his jungle primary (read our explainer on what that is) and some of his Democratic opponents were encouraged to drop out so that Warnock could reach the 50 percent threshold, making a runoff unnecessary. No one dropped out. Even if all of the other Democratic contenders dropped out, that would have accounted for 15.5, if you add up all of the percentages of votes they got. That would have given Warnock 48.4 percent in total. Neither Ossoff, who political observers say has the more challenging race, nor Purdue got to 50 percent.
Then, there is racism, as political consultant Christine Beatty told The Root.
“They were put in place for African Americans, especially in Georgia, to discourage them from voting again,” she said. “We’re one of the few states with a runoff. The majority is usually the majority vote, whoever gets the most votes wins. The history of that is steeped in racism.”
According to CNBC, the original intent of the law was to weaken the power of Black voters after Reconstruction. It first started with the county unit system, formalized in 1917 but introduced informally in 1898, which gave more voting power to mostly white and less populated areas of the state. Votes were allotted to candidates by county, essentially making it an Electoral College system through which to elect candidates to office. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that the system was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. Georgia State Rep. Denmark Grover blamed his 1958 loss to Black voters, thus introducing the runoff system in the legislature in 1964 after he won back his seat.
The runoff system became law and stands to this day.
Nse Ufot of the New Georgia Project told The Root that she and other activists are getting death threats for organizing people to vote in January. People claiming to be members of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and investigators from the secretary of state’s office have regularly stopped Ufot and other organizers. Ufot has security at her home and the organization has a detail at her office.
“I want to be really clear: The work that we do is important,” she said. “I’m very proud of our team. I’m very proud of where our state is right now. We will not be deterred, but I am hyper-aware of the waters that we’re swimming in. There’s been a ton of de-escalation training, so we aren’t encouraging our people to be heroes. We aren’t encouraging our people to be martyrs. I would argue that the work of the president, these two Senate candidates, Loeffler and Perdue, and national Republicans and right-wing media are absolutely fanning these flames. And it’s a problem.”
Why is this race so important?
Republicans control the U.S. Senate, and if Democrats do not win both of those seats, the GOP can make life for president-elect Joe Biden very miserable—just as they did for his former boss, Barack Obama. So far, Democrats have 46 seats to the GOP’s 50. It is important to note that there are two independent senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who caucus with Democrats regularly, essentially giving Democrats 48 seats. If Warnock and Ossoff win, that will give Democrats 50 seats and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be able to break any ties, making her office uniquely important and influential.
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has essentially been the leader of mass obstruction when it comes to pushing forward any progressive legislation. Hundreds of bills continue to linger in the Senate because McConnell simply has not called votes on them. Democrats have long called for Americans to get upwards of $2,000 checks in pandemic relief (the House approved the amount yesterday), and the Equality Act, a bipartisan gun control background check bill, as well as the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019 all remain in limbo. With Democrats in the majority, those bills can move for a vote.
Beyond that, a GOP Senate will have power to counter any nominations Biden has for the judiciary. Even with a House controlled by Democrats, unless the Senate approves the nomination, Biden’s hands are tied. Georgians, if they send Ossoff and Warnock to Washington, will give Biden the power he needs to pass legislation under his agenda.
Will voters turn out for a second election?
They already have. Nearly 2.1 million people voted early so far; around 4 million voted early in November. Part of the challenge is voter fatigue, something Ufot said there is no getting around, acknowledging that the job of organizers is to stress how crucial this runoff is.
“We’re giving rides to the polls, trying to eliminate that barrier for people participating and direct voter contact, she said. “We’re going back to the people who we touched throughout 2020, it’s our 10 touch strategies. We try to touch the people that we’ve registered to vote 10 times, reminding them to vote, reminding them to bring people with them for the polls. And so some of those touches include phone calls, text messages, and high-quality face-to-face conversations on the doors. We’re sending out postcards. We have these amazing digital ads and all of it is designed to be just this side of annoying, so that folks know how important this moment is and that they show up to vote.”
Andra Gillespie, assistant professor of political science at Emory University, told The Root that while numbers are pretty high for this runoff, generally it is very difficult to get folks out a second time—especially for voting outside traditional cycles. Voters who come out for runoffs are usually the types of die-hard, regular voters who show up at primaries and vote in municipal elections where people vote for mundane ordinances in months when people aren’t paying attention. It’s a rarefied electorate, Gillespie said.
What is making this runoff competitive, Gillespie said, are the activists who converted all of the state’s unregistered people of color into voters.
“It’s that activity that started to change the demographic nature of the electorate, which made Democrats more competitive,” she said. All of a sudden, those double-digit margins by which Republicans were winning started to shrink to single-digit margins, then started to shrink within a point or two of winning races and culminated in Joe Biden being able to pull off a narrow victory in the state. Georgia is diverse, but that diversity wouldn’t have translated into political power if somebody hadn’t identified the fact that they would all be potential voters who weren’t voting, and got them to vote.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2019 that Georgia could become a majority-minority state by 2028, with much of the growth coming from Black Americans moving back to the South. Then there is the growing immigrant population, a demographic Stacey Abrams targeted aggressively in 2018. Xan-Rhea Bilal, a field organizer for Georgia Muslim Voter Project said her organization has been engaging Muslim communities in Atlanta and the surrounding counties since 2015. She educates people in mosques, schools, or any place she can target Muslims. Seniors and kids soon-to-be 18-years-old are especially critical in her outreach.