As election officials continued to count ballots in Georgia on Tuesday night, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican opponent Herschel Walker were locked in a close race. Georgia was the state that decided partisan control of the Senate almost two years ago and could do so again in these midterm elections.

Which candidate will advance to a runoff on December 6 depends on whether they can each win the election outright. Incomplete results indicated a close contest with a third-party candidate on the ticket, and as Georgia requires a majority to gain statewide office, it was still possible that neither Warnock nor Walker would cross the 50% mark. 

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Depending on the results of other Senate races, a runoff campaign would be a four-week frenzy that would resemble the 2020 election season, when two Senate runoffs in Georgia served as a national winner-take-all struggle for Senate control. After Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., won their respective races, the chamber was split 50-50 between the two major parties, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote for the Democrats.

In the event of a runoff, Warnock would continue to attack Walker, who is running for office for the first time, as being unqualified while Walker would continue to attack Warnock as being a rubber stamp for the White House.

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What is a runoff election?

When no candidate in the initial election achieved the necessary level of success, a runoff election is held to choose a winner. Both primary and general elections have the option of having runoff elections.

When no candidate wins a majority of the vote in a general election, two states—Georgia and Louisiana—require runoff elections. In every other state, a candidate win in the general election is decided by plurality of the vote.

In an electoral system known as plurality voting, the candidate with the most votes is declared the victor of the contest. To be elected, the candidate does not require an absolute majority. This procedure is also known as winner-takes-all or first-past-the-post. The United States uses this voting system the most frequently.

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All Congressional, State Executive, and State Legislative elections in Georgia where a candidate does not obtain a majority in the general election require runoff elections. In the main election, the top two finishers go to the runoff. In the 1960s, the Georgian legislature established a statute that put this system into place.

In Louisiana, regardless of their partisan affiliations, every candidate standing for a local, state, or federal office appears on the same ballot in either October (in odd-numbered years) or November (in even-numbered years). A candidate is declared the winner of the election if they receive a simple majority of the total number of votes cast. The top two finishers, regardless of their partisan affiliations, move on to the second election in December if no candidate crosses that threshold. The winner of the election is the candidate with the most votes. In 1975, the state put the system into place.

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Runoff elections are held in ten states as a part of the party nomination process. These runoff elections are held when no candidate receives the necessary number of votes to win. This is a majority of the vote (as opposed to a plurality) in the majority of states.

However, in North Carolina, a candidate must receive 30 percent of the vote plus one in order to win the primary. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota – only for congressional and gubernatorial elections, Texas, and Vermont – only for tie votes are the 10 states that employ primary runoff elections.

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Runoffs in primary elections have had their roots in the South since the turn of the 20th century. Democratic candidates were once nominated at conventions before the primary and runoff system was implemented. In order to go into the general election united against the Republican Party, the Democratic Party used the new structure to bring together groups that had broken off inside the party. The Democratic Party implemented the new system in at least one state, Arkansas, to stop Klu Klux Klan members from winning party primaries with a slim majority of the vote.

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The primary and runoff system was intended, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures “to encourage candidates to broaden their appeal to a wider range of voters, to reduce the likelihood of electing candidates who are at the ideological extremes of a party, and to produce a nominee who may be more electable in the general election. Now that the South is solidly Republican, the same issues still hold true.”