How a remnant of Jim Crow helped Georgia Republicans win Tuesday's race for secretary of state
On Tuesday, former Democratic Rep. John Barrow lost by a modest 52-48 against Republican Brad Raffensperger in Georgia’s runoff for secretary of state. Raffensperger won just a 49.1-48.6 plurality on Election Day in November, with Libertarian J. Smythe DuVal, who later endorsed Barrow, taking the rest.
Barrow’s defeat is a blow to the fight to protect voting rights and the integrity of the election system itself, since Raffensperger will likely maintain the policies of Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp. Both before and during his campaign for governor, Kemp gained national notoriety over his pervasive voter suppression measures in his own election and failure to protect Georgia’s voting equipment and registration database from security threats like hackers.
Apart from Louisiana, Georgia is the only state in the country to hold general election runoffs if no one wins a majority in November, and they still exist because of unsavory reasons. The creation of runoffs, both in primaries and general elections, was a tried and true tack of Jim Crow-era Dixiecrats to ensure that conservative white candidates could defeat those favored by black voters. It’s a practice that continued to have an impact for a long time: In 1992, Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler won a 49-48 plurality for Senate on the same day that Bill Clinton also won a plurality for president in Georgia, but Fowler lost to Republican Paul Coverdell by just over 1 point in the lower-turnout runoff.
Following that loss, contemporary Democrats—no longer the party of Jim Crow—eliminated general election runoffs, bringing Georgia into line with nearly every other state, a decision that made the difference in key races later that decade. But after Republicans gained control of state government in 2004 for the first time since Reconstruction, they revived those runoffs, knowing that black voters tend to turn out at lower rates whenever there’s a second round of voting. That change worked just as planned: In 2006 and 2008 elections for state public service commission, which regulates utilities, Democrats won pluralities on Election Day yet lost the subsequent runoffs, and Democrats have done worse in every runoff since 2005.