Marc MorialOp-EdOpinion

MORIAL: Health Care, Voting Rights, Pandemic Recovery at Stake in Ga. Runoff Elections

“Support for the majority-vote plan reinforced the moderate segregationist position. 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. In similar fashion, especially following passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, southern white politicians devised electoral techniques to offset the rising power of Black ballots.” — Civil Rights in America: Racial Voting Rights, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2007

In most states, the winner of an election is determined by a plurality — the candidate with the highest number of votes wins, regardless of whether that number is a majority of votes.

In Georgia, however, if no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters face one another in a runoff. In 1962, the Supreme Court struck down Georgia’s old county-unit system, a “kind of a poor man’s Electoral College” that had been created 45 years prior to amplify rural voters’ power while disadvantaging Black voters.

The runoff was instituted to undermine the influence of Black voters. The segregationist state representative who proposed it, Denmark Groover, had been defeated in an earlier race and blamed his loss on “Negro bloc voting.” In 1990, the Department of Justice sued to overturn the runoff system, saying it has had “a demonstrably chilling effect on the ability of Blacks to become candidates for public office” and calling it “an electoral steroid for white candidates.” The department cited elections in more than 20 Georgia counties “where at least 35 Black candidates won the most votes in their initial primaries, but then lost in runoffs as voters coalesced around a white opponent.”

Now, almost 60 years later, a voting system that was designed to dilute the Black vote could result in the election of the state’s first Black U.S. senator.

On Jan. 5, two runoff elections for Senate will take place in Georgia. No candidate in either race earned more than 50% of the vote in the Nov. 3 general election.

Voters there will choose between incumbent Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat by Gov. Brian Kemp last year, and challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s former congregation.

They will also choose between incumbent David Purdue, a businessman first elected to the seat in 2014, and challenger Jon Ossoff.

The results will determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years. If the challengers win, the Senate will be split 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris able to cast a tie-breaking vote.

In other words, the elections will determine whether the Biden agenda will receive a fair hearing or face a level of obstructionism unprecedented until Barack Obama’s presidency.

The outcome of these elections will determine whether Congress passes a coronavirus stimulus bill that provide more aid for struggling businesses, jobless workers or cities and states facing massive layoffs of front-line workers like police, firefighters, health care workers and teachers.

President-elect Biden’s proposed COVID-19 response plan calls for expanding coronavirus testing resources and increasing the country’s capacity to make personal protective equipment by leveraging the Defense Production Act. He has also backed legislation that would create a separate COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force.

The outcome of these elections will determine the future of the Affordable Care Act. At risk is the insurance coverage for 20 million Americans who have gained coverage either through the exchanges or through the expansion of Medicaid. Millions more are facing the loss of coverage because of preexisting conditions — including, possibly, the more than 16 million who have been infected with coronavirus.

These elections could determine the future of the Voting Rights Act. It has been almost a year since the House passed the Voting Rights Restoration Act, which would reinstate the parts of the act that were stripped out by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill has been stranded in the Senate.

Also stranded in the Senate has been the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a plan to hold police accountable, change the culture of law enforcement and build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve by addressing systemic racism and bias.

For more information about the Georgia runoff elections, including key dates, go to www.ReclaimYourVote.org.

Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.

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