News, Politics

Runoff To Fill Remainder Of John Lewis’ Term Raises Questions About System

Robert Franklin and Kwanza Hall are competing to be a congressman for just a few weeks, one of the shortest terms in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Robert Franklin and Kwanza Hall are competing to be a congressman for just a few weeks, one of the shortest terms in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Credit Christopher Alston / WABE
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This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

While Georgia’s twin Senate runoffs in January have dominated state and national headlines, voters in Atlanta’s 5th Congressional District have another runoff to decide on Tuesday, to fill the remainder of the late John Lewis’ term.

Robert Franklin and Kwanza Hall are competing to be a congressman for just a few weeks, one of the shortest terms in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives. Georgia’s uncommon runoff system has meant that constituents in the 5th District have gone without representation for nearly five months, sparking calls for reform of the runoff system with a history entwined in racism.

“Georgia’s Fifth is slated to be the third-shortest House tenure in U.S. history, at around 33 days. The only two shorter tenures lasted one and two days respectively,” said Doug Kronaizl, a staff writer for Ballotpedia.

The runoff fills Lewis’ 2018-2020 term, but thanks to another Georgia legal quirk, neither man on the ballot will have the opportunity to serve past January.

Because Lewis had already won his June primary, the constitution required the state’s Democratic Party leadership to choose a replacement for the November ballot. They chose party chairwoman and state Sen. Nikema Williams, who opted not to run in this special election for the 2018-2020 term, despite protests from several Lewis allies who decried the process as undemocratic.

Lewis’ staff has been fulfilling constituent service requests under the supervision of the clerk of the House since his death.

Hall, who received the most votes in September, issued a “Plea for Unity” on his website, calling for his opponent to withdraw from the race to avoid the runoff, to no avail.

“I know people are fatigued. I know people are tired just hearing about voting. I know people are getting in holiday mode, but this is a time when we’ve got to double down, especially to honor the legacy, commitment, and sacrifice of Congressman Lewis,” Hall said. “Now that we have the right [to vote], we should use it, plain and simple.”

Franklin said he is running because of the need for moral leadership in these turbulent times.

“I hope people will focus on the fact that these are John Lewis’ final days, and this is one way to honor his legacy and his life by voting on that day. He was elected; he earned those days,” Franklin said.

Runoff elections have historically had far lower turnout than the first time around. Voter turnout in the 2018 runoff for Secretary of State and Public Service Commissioner dropped more than 60 percent. Almost 3.9 million votes were cast in the initial election, but less than 1.5 million voters decided the winner in the runoff.

Added Cost 

On top of preparing for January, all Georgia counties are currently undertaking a machine recount of the general election. A handful of other counties have local runoff elections on Dec. 1, besides the 5th District race in DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton. The expense for all these extra elections lies with each county.

“We have staff staying back in the office preparing for the Dec. 1 election. The staff we did bring out here can assist with this [recount]. We have two things going on simultaneously, so we’re ready to tackle this task, as well as the Dec. 1 election,” said DeKalb County election director Erica Hamilton.

“There was a cost to having an additional runoff, maybe $1.5 million for less than 30,000 people voting,” Hall said. “$1.5 million in these very difficult times, if we could avoid them [runoff elections], it’s probably a good idea.”

The added cost of runoff and the fact that two elections mean two different turnout rates, has led some to advocate for alternative voting systems, namely ranked-choice voting. Ranked-choice voting would allow voters to rank their candidate preferences for each office, narrowing the pool down to one candidate by first counting who received the highest number of first-place votes, then second place, and so on. Ranked-choice voting would eliminate the need for separate elections, explained Kronaizl with Ballotpedia.

“I am hoping, and I’d like to urge other candidates who were a part of this symbolically significant race for the Fifth District to join me in an effort to advance the proposal that we institute ranked-choice voting in Georgia,” Franklin said.

In addition, the majority vote system has been criticized for its ties to Georgia’s segregationist past.

Racist Past

“In 1990, the U.S. Justice Department sued Georgia to challenge the system on those grounds of racial bias against black voters, but that lawsuit ultimately failed in 1998 when a federal circuit court ruled that racial discrimination was not the impetus for the creation of the majority system,” Kronaizl said.

According to a 2009 study by the National Park Service, legislative proponents of majority voting in the 1960s were unabashed about their desire to find a replacement for the recently abolished county unit system that favored predominantly-white rural communities.

Opponents argued that a majority vote system favored white candidates because Black voters would frequently rally around a single candidate and, in doing so, could win in a plurality system. But with the majority system, there would be a runoff that often came down to a white candidate and a Black candidate. As the majority voting bloc, if white voters coalesced around the white candidate, they could win most races.

“It did not remove anyone’s right to cast a ballot, but it was commonly regarded as hampering African Americans—the stigmatized bloc voters—from making their votes count more effectively at the polls,” write the study’s authors.

While it had the added effect of limiting Black voting power, the majority vote system was implemented to ensure that Democrats at the time could retain control in a state where most people voted Democrat, according to University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, who authored a book about runoff elections.

“In 1966, that’s the first time Republicans have a candidate for governor on the ballot since some time back in the 19th century,” he said in a previous interview with WABE.

By the time Georgia implemented the runoff system, he said, it was largely redundant as a means to suppress the Black vote.

“The elimination of Blacks from voting comes out of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, and by 1908 when Georgia rewrites its constitution every southern state had taken steps to eliminate Blacks – through the poll tax, through the literacy test, white primaries, things like that,” Bullock said.