Why Georgia?

The fate of national governance for the next two years may be determined by the result of Georgia’s January 5th runoff election. The near 50-50 split in the U.S.Senate, Georgia’s unique general election rules, and the odd circumstance of both Senate seats up for grabs in the same election in one state have thrust Georgia into the spotlight on the national stage. For this post I want to better understand how this came to pass.

In less than two months, on January 5, 2020, the direction the nation will take for the next four years will be determined by the voters of a single state, Georgia, as they vote in a “runoff” election for two U.S. Senate seats. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. If both Democrats win, it will reduce what is now Mitch McConnell’s U.S. Senate majority to a 50-50 split with VP Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote. A double Democratic win would break Mitch McConnell’s stranglehold on Congressional legislation, and, at least for the next two years, allow the majority of voters in the United States a voice that the composition and rules of the U.S. Senate have denied them for the last decade.

I do not envy the voters of the State of Georgia. For the next seven weeks all eyes will focus on them and a flood of political advertising will rain down on them from every corner of the country. How did it come to the is, anyway? A runoff election for two U.S. Senate seats?

Georgia is the only state in the United States that has a “majority vote requirement” for the general election. That majority requirement is written into the constitution of the State of Georgia. (A number of states, mostly in the South, have a majority vote requirement to win in a partisan primary election–but primary elections are a different story.) To win in the Georgia General Election, a race in which no candidate gathers more than 50% of the vote goes to a runoff of the top two. The leader in the standard General Election, of course, is only denied a majority when there is a third party candidate who siphons off some of the votes. On November 3, 2020, Shane Hazel, a Libertarian candidate in the regular U.S. Senate election took 2.3% of the vote, leaving both David Perdue (R), a one term Senator, and challenger Jon Ossoff (D) with less than the required 50%. 

There is a second U.S. Senate seat runoff on January 5th, a double header! While the runoff piece is a unique bit of Georgian electoral rules, having two U.S. Senate seat races at the same time in one state happens only in the event of a “Special Election” to fill a seat either vacant or filled by appointment in the last two years. 

For the historical and legal details of how and why Senate elections set up this way see the P.S. below. 

Kelly Loeffler was appointed to the Senate by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp in January of this year, 2020, and now must stand for election. At the time of the appointment Brian Kemp had been Governor of Georgia for less than a year, having beaten Stacey Abrams (D) for the governorship in 2018 by a razor thin margin in an election marred by voter suppression, an election over which Kemp presided as Secretary of State–a glaring conflict of interest. The results of elections have cascading effects.

The election Class of the Senate seat to which Loeffler was appointed terms out in 2022, at which time whoever wins the January 5 runoff will have to stand for re-election again. One more note: Loeffler did not stand in a Primary election in Georgia. Technically, the November 3 election for this seat was a “Special Election” (not the usual contest among the winners of partisan primary elections). In this Special Election there were 21 candidates with Loeffler garnering only 25.9% of the votes and her leading challenger, Raphael Warnock (D), 32.9%. Adding up the percentages of the other Ds and Rs in the race suggests the result of January 5th runoff is far from certain.

Both the incumbent Republicans carry baggage, Perdue and Loeffler benefitted handsomely from stock trading possibly based on insider information related to the pandemic. Judd Legum details their baggage in his column Georgia on my Mind. I recommend that article for additional background (and I recommend signing up for Legum’s email).

To add to the intrigue and scrutiny, in 2018 Georgia was ranked dead last by the Electoral Integrity Project. (Georgia is also remarkable for gerrymandering, but since U.S. Senate elections are statewide, that issue doesn’t come into play in this particular runoff.) That Electoral Integrity Project’s ranking came while the current Georgia Governor, Brian Kemp, was the Secretary of State running Georgia’s elections. Things have changed. The new Secretary of the State of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, has made vast improvements in the integrity and function of Georgia’s electoral process. (For the details see Republicans Should Be Defending Georgia’s Election Process by the former president of the National Association of Secretaries of State). Loeffler and Perdue, the two current Republican Senate seat-holders trying to defend themselves in the January 5th runoff, have, in gross Trumpian style, called for Raffensberger to resign. Apparently, they see electoral integrity as a threat–and for them that might be true.

To quote another article on Raffensperger and Georgia elections:

Andrea Young, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Georgia, praised Mr. Raffensperger’s handling of this year’s general election and characterized this week’s criticism as “voter suppression 2.0.”

“As a child of the South,” she said, “it just sounds like too many Black people voted and we don’t like it.”

Meanwhile, Stacey Abrams, who lost the governorship to Brian Kemp in 2018 while Kemp oversaw elections, has led a tremendous effort to get formerly disenfranchised voters to participate. That story can be read here: How Stacey Abrams and her band of believers turned Georgia blue

These odd January 5th runoff elections set to be a pair of titanic contests with results of national and even global significance. Keep watch, join a postcard writing group, contribute money, call relatives in Georgia. It’s going to be a wild couple of months. 

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. U.S. Senators serve for a term of six year (the longest term between elections in the federal government). The Constitution, in Article I, Section 3, Clause 2, specifies dividing the Senate seats into three Classes, each Class to stand for election at a different two year interval. When the original division was made care was taken not to put both Senators from one state in the same Class. Ever since then, when a new state is added the two new Senate seats are assigned to two different Classes (keeping the numbers in each Class as close to equal as possible) and a coin toss determines which of the two new Senators takes which seat. 

When a Senator vacates a Senate seat without finishing the term associated with that seat’s Class, a replacement Senator is appointed from the state to fill that seat until the next two year election comes around (17th Amendment). Then the appointee (technically an incumbent at that point) has to stand for election. Hence, now and then, both U.S. Senate seats of one state may wind up on the ballot in the same election.