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Georgia runoff elections explained: What are they? When are they? And how they could play a national role

Georgia is gearing up for not one - but two - runoff elections set to take place in January.

ATLANTA — Election day may be behind the nation, but it won't feel like it in Georgia. That's because the state is gearing up for not one - but two - runoff elections set to take place in January.

Georgia voters will once again head to the polls to vote to fill both of its Senate seats, already a rare thing as Senate seats usually open up one at a time. 

In one race, senior Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue will try and fend off Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. Perdue, who appeared to be cruising to victory on election night, saw his share of the total votes drop steadily as ballots were counted. He failed to get the required 50 percent plus one vote needed to win outright, triggering the runoff. 

In the other race, junior Sen. Kelly Loeffler will face off with Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock in a runoff to the special election. Loeffler was appointed to the seat by Gov. Brian Kemp after Sen. Johnny Isakson retired for health reasons. An outright win for Loeffler was always a tall order because of the crowded field of more than two dozen candidates who would split the total votes. After election day, it would be clear Warnock would advance to the runoff with her.

As if having two races wasn't enough, the elections will be under increased national attention, as the outcome very well may determine which political party controls the Senate in the upcoming session and whether a Biden Administration would be able to achieve its goals.

What is a runoff election?

In some states, winners are determined by a plurality - or whoever has the highest amount of votes wins. In these cases, the candidate does not have to win an outright majority to be elected.  

Here in Georgia, however, in order to be declared the winner in an election, a candidate must receive at least 50 percent plus one vote. If that does not take place, under Georgia law, the race automatically goes to a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

A runoff, then, is another chance for voters to cast a ballot in order to determine a winner.

Why do runoffs exist in Georgia politics?

According to a 2014 analysis by the Washington Post, runoffs are a vestige of a time when white Democrats controlled Southern politics and manipulated election rules to remain in power.

The Post article quoted University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, who said that in the days when the Democrats were the only party in town, the runoff was often the "determinative election." Often, in those days, Bullock said, there were "more people participating in the runoff than in the original primary."

According to the Post's article, the runoff system was used, along with literacy tests, poll taxes, and other hurdles to keep African Americans away from the ballot box. 

RELATED: Runoffs arose to limit power of Black voters in Georgia, much of South, experts say

In recent years, Georgia is one of seven states - along with Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas - where runoffs are required if a single candidate does not receive at least one vote beyond a 50 percent threshold in a primary election. In two other states, the bar is even lower: 40 percent in North Carolina and 35 percent in Louisiana. South Dakota and Vermont have very limited instances in which they use runoffs, according to Ballotpedia.

However, Georgia is one of only two states, according to the non-profit Ballotpedia, to use runoffs to decide general elections if a candidate doesn't earn a majority of the vote. Louisiana is the other state. 

Historically, though, runoffs are significantly harder for Democrats to win in Georgia, as it is a steep uphill battle to re-galvanize a base that just voted and campaigns may have already exhausted funding needed to continue operations. 

RELATED: How control of the U.S. Senate could depend on the outcome of Georgia's Jan. 5 runoff election

With the current political climate, however, and the overwhelming turnout in the Nov. 3 general election, that may not be the case this election cycle. And you can bet a rush of money for both races - totaling a staggering estimated $200 million.

As 11Alive political analyst Andra Gillespie put it, “this is not about persuasion. This is about turnout.”

And with President Trump no longer on the ticket, Gillespie said both parties will likely push early and even absentee voting, especially since the election falls just days after the busy holiday season.

When is the Georgia runoff election?

Georgia law sets the date for runoffs for federal offices at nine weeks after the date of the general election. In this instance, that would fall on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.

Voters can request an absentee ballot for the Senate runoffs now; those ballots won't be sent out in the mail, though, until after Nov. 18.

Early voting for the Senate runoffs begins on Dec. 14. and runs through the Friday immediately before election day, Jan. 1, 2021. Counties should be publishing the hours and locations soon, but that will also be available on the  Secretary of State's My Voter website.

Who can vote in a runoff election?

Anyone who is registered to vote in Georgia can vote in state, local, and federal runoff elections. If you're already registered with the state, you don't need to register again - though it doesn't hurt to check your status on the Secretary of State's My Voter website.

The deadline to register for the Jan. 5 Senate runoff is Dec. 7. You can register, even if you did not vote in the November general election.

To register, a voter must be: 

  • Be a citizen of the United States
  • Be a legal resident of the county
  • Be at least 17 1/2 years of age to register and 18 years of age to vote
  • Not be serving a sentence for conviction of a felony involving moral turpitude
  • Have not been found mentally incompetent by a judge

How to vote in a runoff election

Voters have the same options to cast a ballot that they did in the general election. They can vote by an absentee ballot, vote during the early-voting period, or vote in person on election day.

If you requested an absentee or mail-in ballot for the general election and you checked that you are elderly, disabled or voting from overseas, you should receive a ballot automatically for the runoff. 

RELATED: Voting by mail? You can now get alerts for absentee ballot updates

If not, you must fill out another absentee ballot application form (you can even do it online) and return it to your county elections office by mail, fax or in person - even if you voted absentee in the Nov. 3 election.

Drop boxes will be available again for voters to submit their ballots.