The Georgia Runoffs: A Testament to Democracy

Eliza Leal, Staff Writer

The beginning of 2021 was marked by eyes fixated on screens as viewers across the nation watched the votes for the senate runoffs in Georgia being counted in real-time. Georgia is one of the few states that has a runoff process, which occurs in the event that candidates in elections for certain statewide offices do not reach a 50% threshold in the general elections. The incumbents were Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Perdue had served six years in the Senate and Loeffler had served one year after she was appointed by Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, to the Senate in December of 2019 after Republican Johnny Isakson resigned from the seat. The general election between now-Senator Jon Ossoff and David Perdue occurred in conjunction with the special election between the less established Kelly Loeffler and now-Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock. Amid false claims of election fraud, the rise in COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths, evidence of voter suppression and impending threats to democracy, the elections persisted as democratically as possible. With Georgia having already undergone a shift in the partisan balance of power in the state, as Joe Biden won this state in the general election, the results of these runoff elections were extremely consequential.

“It came down to these two races in Georgia,” Professor Sam Rosenfeld from the Political Science Department said, when discussing the outcome of the elections. “There’s never been an example of the statewide elections having two simultaneous statewide senate elections that determined the participation control of a chamber… the stakes could not be higher.”

The final results showed that Senator Ossoff received 50.6% of the votes while Mr. Perdue received 49.4%, and Senator Warnock received 51.0% and Ms. Loeffler about 49.0%. Senator Ossoff has become the youngest senator to ever serve in the United States Senate and Senator Warnock has become Georgia’s first Black senator. The closeness in the vote margins demonstrates the intensity of these two elections and the power of mobilization. 

“What you see here and, certainly, from the point of view of Democrats in Georgia, is a real indication that this is officially a state that has entered, I think, swing State territory for the foreseeable future,” Rosenfeld said, when reflecting on the direct impact of electing these senators. “You cannot exaggerate or overstate the national repercussions of [the election of] these two.”

Cecilia Belzer, a junior from Savannah, Georgia, served on Senator Warnock’s campaign as a finance fellow and later, in the runoff, became a member of the opposition research team. This position required her to attend Loeffler’s rallies and watch and analyze her speeches. Belzer noted that though this position was oftentimes grueling, it caused her to reflect greatly on the power of campaigning and for whom she was campaigning. 

“The thing I learned most was how much [Senator Warnock] cared truly about everyone. Not just the people working on his campaign but all Georgians,” she remarked, later reflecting on her first encounter with him. “He talked to a team of volunteers who were there to canvas [telling them] ‘You are making a change.’ It just felt so natural… just him clearly caring about his position and not just doing it because he wants some political gain but because he wants to better Georgia.”

Having worked on his campaign since March after the Democratic primaries, Belzer was amazed by the final count. 

“As soon as the results started coming in and we were ahead… I couldn’t process it was actually happening,” she said. “I was not prepared for the fact that not only would the numbers be in our favor right away but that we would know the results that night.”

Katie Brown, a junior hailing from Atlanta’s Fulton County, shared Belzer’s feelings of excitement and joy upon learning the results of the election. She lives in the county whose mail-in ballots, in conjunction with those of DeKalb, greatly influenced the election. 

“One of the most common things that a Democrat living in a southern state like Georgia faces is a sense of feeling kind of useless in politics and not feeling the inspiration to even try to make a difference, because it is so often that states like Georgia are written off as lost causes for Democrats and being guaranteed red,” Brown stated when asked about the impact of this election on Georgia’s future. “But this election proved that Georgia, which is historically a red state, can go blue, and I think the main difference that [it] is going to make is empowering Democrats living in Georgia and especially people living in Atlanta.”

The turnout, most especially the increase in Black voters compared to the general election, was a testament to the mobilizing efforts of organizations on the ground, with Stacey Abrams rising as a prominent figure who empowered voters to exercise their agency in their right to vote. Abrams emerged as a force after coming very close to being elected governor in 2018 and has dedicated her career to advocating for voter access and working on the ground with several groups, including Fair Fight, which focused on registering voters and getting them to the polls. Her work follows in Dr. King’s footsteps in the fight for equality and civil rights. Because of her successes and her impact on the political landscape of Georgia as a whole, Abrams was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

While discussing the degree of racial and ethnic polarization around political parties, Rosenfeld credits the rising share of non-white Democratic voters to mobilization efforts, which has revolutionized the nation’s political landscape.  

“Having organizations that have connections and are routed to actual communities and stay active in those close elections,” he said, “make a real difference and the marginal effects [in voting counts] end up mattering.”

“I think every state needs their own Stacey Abrams,” Belzer said when asked about her perspective on voter mobilization. “Just looking at the numbers of how many tens of thousands of people she registered even after the general and before the runoffs… we truly would not have won without canvassing and without people like her. The Democrats came out in a way that they never have come out for runoffs in Georgia.”

These elections were unprecedented and unpredictable given the state of the nation. Both Belzer and Brown agree that though the results were incredible, the momentum cannot stop here.

“I am hoping that Georgia will stay blue, but it’s challenging to throw myself into that hope because this election is particularly heated for so many reasons and gained a lot more attention than most elections would,” Brown said. “ I don’t know if that will always be the case moving forward so I wouldn’t say that I am counting on Georgia to stay blue, but my hope is that this isn’t a one-time thing and that Georgia voters, especially blue voters, will continue to show out in upcoming elections.” 

“It’s going to change the whole political landscape. No one is going to assume that Republicans are going to win,” Belzer said. “Now it is up in the air which is what I think a democracy is supposed to be… [but] even though Georgia, the House, the Senate and the executive office are blue, I think it’s all close enough that we could lose it all in [the coming] years. Just because we are confident now, doesn’t mean we get to stay confident. The fight will never really end.”