opinion

Georgia Could Make History in More than One Way by Focusing Outreach on Black Voters

A win—or two—in the Georgia runoff races would be groundbreaking. Not only could this result in Georgia's first Democratic senator, it may signal a shift in this historically red state.
December 6, 2020Updated 2 months ago
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Georgia Could Make History in More than One Way by Focusing Outreach on Black Voters
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If Rev. Raphael Warnock wins the election, he will be Georgia's first Black senator. There have only been 10 Black senators in US history. None of them came from Georgia.
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Reverend Raphael Warnock (second from left) is pictured laying a wreath at the gravesite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 2009.
There has never been a Black winner of a race for the United States Senate in the history of Georgian politics. Since Hiram Revels was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1870, there have only been nine other Black senators. That's a total of 10. Of those, only three were from southern states: two in Mississippi and one in South Carolina. Every Black senator who has run in Georgia has lost. That's two seats up for grabs every six years in elections beginning in 1788 through 2016. Roughly 76 senate elections over 228 years in Georgia and only non-Black winners. A state with 32% of the population being Black and 0% making it into the United States Senate. It's a streak that would be broken if Rev. Raphael Warnock wins.
Democrats could help Georgia move away from its runoff election rules’ racist undertones by prioritizing Black voters. In Georgia, candidates must get more than 50 percent of the vote to win an election; if no candidate achieves this, the race goes to a runoff. This rule dates back to segregationist efforts to dilute the Black vote.
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Historically, Georgia runoffs have seen a decrease in Democratic voter turnout, especially among Black voters, compared to the general elections that preceded them. Many political experts believe Georgia's runoff rules were designed by segregationists in the 1960s to deter Black voter turnout, and evidence shows the segregationists' machinations worked. In 1990, the Department of Justice tried to overturn the majority voting system in Georgia after finding at least 35 Black candidates lost in a runoff despite having won the most votes in their original primaries. Data presented to the 11th Circuit Court in the 1998 case Brooks v. Miller (which challenged the majority-vote requirement) showed that between 1970 and 1995, 85 of 278 runoffs in Georgia resulted in a candidate losing in the runoff after having won a plurality of the votes in the initial primary election. Sixty-five percent of those 85 cases involved a Black candidate ultimately losing in the runoff. Though Brooks v. Miller did not find in favor of the plaintiffs—27 Black voters joined by the Department of Justice—the court did note that majority voting, like that used in Georgia, indicated "the virus of race-consciousness." And Denmark Groover, the Georgia state representative and self-professed segregationist who proposed the majority vote and runoff rules in 1963, admitted he did so to undermine Black political strength. Though Groover was a Democrat, the runoff rules he introduced have since tended to favor Republicans. And now, Democrats have a historic opportunity to right these historic wrongs. They can break the pattern of Black voter drop-off in the state's runoffs by mobilizing Black voters and dedicating substantial voter outreach efforts among Black communities. While the state's runoff rules may yet stand, and while those runoff rules have blatant racist undertones, that does not mean the historic drop-off among Black voters has to continue.
Black voters could help shift Georgia from red to blue. Once a reliably red state, Georgia's voters have put Republicans on notice, giving Joe Biden a narrow victory over Trump.
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Georgia's population has grown by almost 3 million in the last 20 years. The young and the foreign-born populations have boomed, causing a growth in diverse and progressive-leaning voters. While Democratic voters were once limited mostly to Georgia's large urban centers, they're on the rise in suburbs that were once reliably Republican. Georgia Democrats themselves have seen a shift from the old guard's "blue dog" tenets to more liberal values. These changes are certainly key to Georgia's slow but steady move toward to the blue column, but it's the strong momentum among Black voters that many credit for 2020's more dramatic shift away from the Republican Party in the Peach State. Black voters are a big reason Biden took the lead he did nationally and in traditionally red states like Georgia, where he was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in almost 30 years. They also sent a message in the ousting of Republican Jackie Johnson, the incumbent DA candidate for Brunswick Judicial Circuit who faced harsh criticism and sparked a wave of nationwide protests because of her poor handling of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. If Georgia's Black voters turn out for the January 2021 Senate runoff the way they did for the 2020 general election, they could deliver a stunning win for Democrats in the form of two Senate seats—effectively swaying the U.S. Senate from red to blue. Four years of racist rhetoric from President Donald Trump and inaction among his Republican enablers have mobilized liberal-leaning voters and voters from diverse communities. In a deep-south state with a history of violent racism, these factors could usher in a blue Georgia.
CLOSURE
Any win in Georgia would represent both practical and symbolic victories. It would mean electing Georgia's first Black senator as well as a broader coup for Georgia—and the nation's—fight to protect Black voters.
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