An Explainer: The 2020 Georgia Senate Runoff Elections

Results from the 2020 General Election triggered runoff elections in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia and Texas. One critical runoff remaining is for Georgia’s U.S Senate seats 1 and 2 on Tuesday, January 5, 2021.

What is a runoff election?

In some elections, a candidate must win the plurality — the most votes — AND the majority of votes — earning more than 50% of the vote — to be certified as the winner.

In multi-candidate races, it can be difficult to earn over 50% of the votes as votes are split between multiple candidates. Thus, a candidate may receive the plurality of votes but not the majority of votes. A runoff election is a second election between the top two candidates when no candidate meets the criteria for winning in the first election.

What’s the history behind runoff elections?

While there can be some positive aspects of runoff voting, such as eliminating what some consider “wasted’’ votes and encouraging more diverse candidates to run in a general election, the history behind some state laws are rooted in attempts to retain white political power.

The Department of Interior describes how Georgia’s runoff law, which was created in the midst of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, was an attempt to protect white political power in a white-majority state by requiring a majority-vote (over 50%). The fear was that, in a multicandidate race where votes are split between candidates, a Black candidate could more easily win a plurality of the vote if multiple white candidates ran.

Why is the Georgia Senate Runoff Election getting so much attention?

Each state has two U.S. Senators. To maintain stability, elections for the two seats are typically staggered so that a state’s two seats are not up for re-election at the same time. However, in the 2020 General Election both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats were up for election and both are going into a runoff. The outcome of the runoff elections will determine which party — Republican or Democratic — controls the U.S. Senate. Here is the backstory:

Georgia’s election for the U.S. Senate Seat 1, held by Republican Senator David Perdue, was a regularly scheduled election. In the 2020 General Election between incumbent David Perdue (R), Jon Ossoff (D) and Shane Hazel (I), none of the candidates surpassed the 50% threshold. This forces a runoff between Perdue, incumbent (R) and Ossoff (D), because they were the top two vote-getters.

Georgia’s U.S. Senate Seat 2 is a special election. Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler was appointed after former Republican Senator Johnny Isakson retired due to health reasons in 2019. The 2020 election is to determine who carries out the remainder of what would have been Isakson’s term. In the 2020 General Election, 20 candidates split the vote forcing a runoff between Loeffler, incumbent (R) and Raphael Warnock (D), the top two vote-getters.

The 2020 General Election has left the U.S. Senate with 48 Democrats (this includes two independents who caucus with the Democratic Party) and 50 Republicans. Both runoff elections in Georgia are highly competitive and influence who controls the Senate:

  • If at least one Republican incumbent is re-elected, the Senate will continue under Republican control with Senator Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader.
  • If Democratic candidates win both Senate seats in Georgia, the Senate will tie 50-to-50 with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes.

Can voters who didn’t vote in the 2020 General Election vote in the runoff election?

Yes, runoff elections should be viewed as an entirely new election.

If an eligible voter did not vote in the 2020 General Election for any reason, they are eligible to vote in the runoff election.

If an eligible voter tried to vote in the 2020 General Election, but they had to use a provisional ballot or their ballot was contested, the voter should identify the issue and make sure it is resolved for the runoff election. For example, an eligible voter may need to make sure their voter registration is active and current before the runoff election.

If a young person turns 18 after the general election, but before the runoff, they are eligible to register and vote in the runoff election. However, they would have had to register prior to the December 7 runoff registration deadline.

Why is the youth vote so important?

Young voters comprised an estimated 21% of all eligible voters in the 2020 General Election in Georgia — 4% higher than the estimated national youth vote share average and one of the highest vote shares in the country. Black youth, in particular, showed up in force.

With highly competitive races, it’s likely the winner will be decided by a very small margin so it’s critical every voter’s voice be heard.

There are an estimated 23,000 newly eligible voters who will have turned 18 between the 2020 general election and the runoff election in January 2021 making them eligible to vote in the runoff election, but many of them are not aware of their right to participate. In order to be eligible to vote in the runoff election, voters need to be registered by the deadline on Monday, December 7. Georgia allows voters to register as long as they are 17.5 years old and will be 18 by the next election.

What else do Georgia voters need to know to prepare to vote in the runoff?

  • Check your registration status: The deadline to register to vote in time for the January 5 Senate runoff was December 7. It is not too late to check your registration status online here.
  • Vote Early: Early voting for the election starts on Monday, December 14. Dates and hours vary by county and location, especially with the holidays. Find your early voting location, dates and hours here.
  • Absentee Voting: Voters must request an absentee ballot — even if they voted absentee for the 2020 General Election — before the deadline on Friday, January 1, 2021. However, many local election offices will be closed for the holiday and it can take time to receive your ballot after requesting it, so it’s best not to delay. You can request an absentee ballot right now on Rock the Vote’s website. Remember there are deadlines for both requesting and returning your ballot.
  • Sign up for Election Reminders: If you’re worried you’ll forget to go to your polling place when the Tuesday, January 5 Election Day comes around (or if you want to learn about other elections in the future), you can sign up for election reminders from Rock the Vote here.
  • Volunteer with our Relational Organizing Program: Reach out to people in your network asking them to vote on or before Tuesday, January 5. Your plea could be the determining factor in their decision to vote. Join one of our upcoming Empower Parties to learn how you can organize and mobilize your friends. You can RSVP here!

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