The history of runoff elections: A brief overview


Image credit: The New York Times

On Tuesday, January 5, CBS News projected that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock had defeated their Republican opponents in Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, officially awarding Democrats control of the Senate. Both Ossoff and Warnock’s victories ensure that Democrats will hold a 50-50 majority in the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking any ties. Warnock’s election, in particular, represented a historic achievement in the history of American politics as he became the first-ever black senator from Georgia to be elected. 

In this year’s election, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock managed to prevail in Georgia with the help of superior Democratic turnout, especially among Black Georgians. According to The New York Times, the majority of Georgia’s Democratic voters this year were black, making up roughly 30 percent of the overall voters, and it was these voters who helped drive the strong Democratic turnout. 

But before we dive further into this year’s runoff races, let’s take a look back at the history of runoff elections in general and how they came to be today.

According to Ballotpedia, a runoff election is a second election held after the primary one in November to determine a winner when no candidate in the first election met the required threshold for victory. Since the 1960s, runoff elections have been required for all of Georgia’s congressional, state executive, and state legislative elections in which no candidate received at least 50% of the total votes in the general election. The top two finishers in the general election then advance to the runoff where the winner is nominated to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Including Georgia, runoff elections are currently only used in ten U.S. states. The remaining forty states use what is called a plurality voting system, where the winner of an election is the candidate that received the highest number of votes. Unlike a runoff election, the winning candidate does not need to win an outright majority of the votes to be elected. This system is sometimes referred to as first-past-the-post or winner-take-all and is the most common voting system used in the United States. 

Primary election runoffs trace their roots all the way back to the start of the 20th century. In the South, prior to enacting the runoff system, Democrats nominated candidates through conventions. With a long history of Democratic rule in the South, the primary and runoff system was intended to encourage candidates to broaden their appeal to a wider range of voters, to reduce the likelihood of electing candidates who are at the ideological extremes of a party, and to produce a nominee who may be more electable in the general election. However, since the runoff elections were implemented over 80 years ago, the South has been solidly Republican, meaning the issue of one party consistently dominating the region for a long period of time, the same issue that the concept of a runoff election was supposed to solve, is still present today.

In the meantime, as President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are scheduled to be sworn into office on January 20 at noon, Ossoff and Warnock’s victories will undoubtedly make it easier for their administration to implement their new policies quickly and without much issue.