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Why Georgia Has Runoffs For General Elections

Like many laws around elections in Georgia, the runoff rule — which has the power balance in the U.S. Senate on hold until Jan. 5 — was laced with racism.

Many states, especially in the South, require runoffs in party primaries if no candidate gets a majority. It helped prevent minorities from winning if there are more than two candidates in a race.

Georgia is the only state requiring these runoffs for general elections as well, and the reason for that maybe a 1966 contentious governor’s race, according to University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.

“In 1966, that’s the first time Republicans have a candidate for governor on the ballot since some time back in the 19th century,” he said.

That Republican candidate was former Congressman Bo Calloway who was challenging Democrat Lester Maddox, a staunch segregationist Atlanta restaurant owner who would not serve Black people.

According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Calloway got the most votes, beating Maddox by 3,039 votes. But many Democrats who couldn’t stomach voting for a Republican — or for Maddox — wrote in the name of former Democratic Georgia Gov. Ellis Arnall.

He got 7.1% of the votes.

“Calloway leads the pack, but he didn’t get a majority. At that point, the law required — that at least for governor — if no candidate got a majority, the Legislature chose the governor, which is what the Legislature did in ‘66,” said Bullock.

That Legislature was Democratic and chose Maddox, who never got a majority of Georgians’ support, as governor.

Then in 1968, Georgians approved a slew of constitutional amendments that changed the way governors and other officers are chosen if nobody gets a majority.

Instead of letting the candidate with the most votes win, the 50-plus-one rule, which had been in place for party primaries since 1917, was extended to general elections in Georgia.

Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Nov. 9 via WABE Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, GA.

Susanna Capelouto