Georgia runoffs were inspired by racism — how Black voters can still overcome
Runoff elections were the brainchild of a pro-segregation politician, and strict new rules in the Raphael Warnock vs. Herschel Walker showdown are continuing his legacy.
Denmark Groover Jr. didn’t like losing elections because of Black people.
The segregationist knew firsthand what that felt like when, in 1958, he ran for office and watched the majority of African-American Georgia voters rally around his opponent, resulting in his loss.
After Groover finally was elected to office as a state representative in 1962, he prioritized rallying support for instituting a runoff rule that required over a 50-percent majority for a candidate to win, in both primaries and general elections.
The goal was to weaken the “Negro voting bloc” and give white voters a second chance at coalescing around a popular candidate. Even in 2022, the legacy of Groover’s efforts are standing strong as Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock and his Republican opponent, Herschel Warnock, head to a runoff election on Dec. 6 after failing to hit 50 percent of the vote.
“The play has been historically to create a web that entangles voters,” says Poy Winichakul, a senior staff attorney for voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “So whatever kind of method of voting, whatever attempts they make to cast a ballot and have it count, they’ll get caught up in it.”
Winichakul further explains: “These [laws] were working, while also under a reign of terror, especially for Black Americans…There were other measures of social and economic pressures and threats, physical threats. There was a whole web of things aimed to disenfranchize, especially Black Americans. Now today that web exists again.”
“New Rules, New Challenges”
Although Warnock won his 2021 runoff against pro-Trump Republican Kelly Loeffler, this time he’ll have to face Walker under new, stricter voting rules.
Georgia Republicans introduced S.B. 202, a voting law last year that cut the early voting window from 9 weeks down to 4 weeks in a runoff, amongst other rules. There can be no new voters in the runoff. And the secretary of state has declared that no voting can happen on the Saturday after a holiday – meaning voters will lose the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
“For the November election, there were tons of early voting dates,” says Quentin James, co-founder of The Collective PAC, a political action committee committed to building Black political power. “People were able to vote on weekends when they really didn’t have to work. And that won’t be available at the moment for the Georgia runoff.”
The limited voting window collides with the already-challenging logistics of a runoff. Between work, the busyness of the holidays, and potential transportation issues, not all voters may be able to come out, even if they wanted to.
“Many Black voters use Saturday to go in to vote, especially when you think about families and family obligations during the workweek,” says Rebekah Caruthers, vice oresident of the Fair Elections Center in an interview with theGrio.
“If you have multi-generational folks in your home and you have different things that are going on during the work week, you may not have time to actually vote early and in-person, but on that Saturday you might have time.”
To complicate matters, different counties set different rules about early voting, and may choose to opt out of early voting entirely.
“What’s really confusing for Georgia voters, especially Black voters who have been targeted with the onerous legislation to make it tougher to vote, is that depending on which county you’re in, the rules of the game, it’s going to be different,” says Caruthers.
Winichakul of SPLC says rules like these represent the web of voter suppression that Georgia’s runoff originators hoped would trip up Black voters.
“You want to vote absentee. There are extra hurdles to do that. You want to vote early in person. There are extra hurdles to do that. You want to vote in person on Election Day, extra hurdles to do that,” Winichakul tells theGrio. “So every which way you try to go, you could get stuck in this web.”
She predicts the voter suppression efforts won’t be ending anytime soon.
“In terms of a pattern of voter suppression, there is S.B. 202, and next legislative session, we should expect even more rollbacks because of the increasing numbers of people of color turning out every election.”
“Voters Are Exhausted”
Whether voters want to come back out, though, is another challenge organizers have to tackle, according to James.
“Voters are exhausted,” he says. “And now it’s kind of starting all back over again.”
After a flurry of phone calls, text messages, advertisements and even visits this midterm season, James says voter outreach during a runoff is like walking a tightrope.
“You don’t want to turn them off completely,” James tells theGrio. “You gotta keep folks motivated after they just came out to vote. But now that wasn’t enough and so you need to do it again.”
But as Georgia’s runoff originator Denmark Groover Jr. knew all too well, Black voters had real power in this election, with 90% of them voting for Warnock (70% of white voters opted for Walker).
Caruthers of the Fair Elections Center says awareness of their own power is still fueling interest in the runoff from Black voters.
“We do see there is lots of enthusiasm with Black voters,” Caruthers explains. “But with enthusiasm, there’s things, roadblocks that we are concerned with.
Rising to the Occasion
Despite the challenges and racist roots of the runoff election, James is still optimistic about how Black voters, in particular, will show up at the ballot box.
“While it is unfortunate that so much pressure is on them, that’s kind of just the struggle that we’ve always kind of been a part of in this country.”
That struggle is well-known and one that voting organizers are working around.
The Collective PAC provided more than 77,000 rides to the polls for Georgia voters back in 2020 and will do the same for the 2022 runoff.
Rides to the polls are essential, especially with strict new rules which only allow voters to vote in their designated precinct or be turned away.
Organizations are also providing translation services to understand ballots in English, as well as helping voters stay informed of all the new runoff rules that may impact their vote.
James says while the rules may be tough, it’s nothing Black people haven’t found ways to overcome before.
“Black voters, while they’re always challenged and never adequately thanked or never adequately supported, they always rise to the occasion.”
Natasha S. Alford is an award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and media executive driven by the power of storytelling. As the VP of Digital Content and a Sr. Correspondent, Natasha leads strategy around the creation of original content for TheGrio.
TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!