ATLANTA -- Is it racist to require candidates to win more than 50 percent of the vote in Georgia's primary elections?
That's the question before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals when it hears arguments Tuesday in an 8-year-old lawsuit by 27 black voters.
A ruling isn't expected until after the July 21 primaries, but the court could force the state to lower the threshold of votes needed to win future elections. Now, if no party primary candidate wins 50 percent plus one vote, the top two finishers meet in a runoff.
Though the suit alleges racial discrimination, partisanship has been the focus of the Legislature's recent debates on majority-vote issues. Republicans say Democrats tinkered with election rules this year to give themselves an advantage at the polls.
The lawsuit contends Georgia legislators enacted the majority-vote law in 1964 to discourage blacks from running for office and to undermine the chances of those who did run.
The rule discriminates against black candidates who may be able to finish first with less than a majority in a race against two or more opponents but then lose to the remaining white candidate in a runoff, said Laughlin McDonald, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who is representing the black voters.
"It discriminates against black people, and it's part of our racist heritage," Mr. McDonald said.
U.S. District Judge Richard Freeman rejected that argument in September 1996, prompting the appeal. Judge Freeman said the black plaintiffs failed to prove lawmakers and then-Gov. Carl Sanders were motivated primarily by race when they enacted the law, even though "the virus of race-consciousness was in the air."
The current system didn't dissuade state Sen. Floyd Griffin of Milledgeville, a black Democrat, from running for lieutenant governor against five whites in the upcoming primary.
"I don't want to look at it just from the standpoint of my race," said Mr. Griffin, who is not involved in the suit. "I think it does diminish the possibility of winning. How much? I don't know."
As part of the lawsuit, researchers looked at all Georgia runoffs from 1970 to 1995 -- a total of 2,798 elections. Of those, 278 runoffs were between a black and a white candidate.
The study showed 56 races in which a black candidate finished first in the initial election but lost the runoff. But there were also 29 races in which the black candidate trailed in the first balloting but won the runoff.
In 1964, the majority-vote rule was approved as part of Georgia's first uniform election code. Before then, the state's 159 counties made up their own rules, often to favor powerful incumbents.
"It was a disaster, it was crooked, it was beyond what today in 1998 we can really imagine in terms of how backward it was," said David Walbert, an Atlanta attorney who represents the state in election-law cases.
Thus, the majority-election rule was part of an effort to impose uniformity and stamp out corruption rather than discriminate against blacks, Mr. Walbert said.
Still, lawmakers may have undermined that argument over the last four years by lowering the election threshold to 45 percent in all statewide general elections -- the elections in which voters choose from among party nominees and independents to decide the final winner of an office.
Republicans protested that Democrats made the change in an effort to avoid November runoffs, such as the one in which Republican Paul Coverdell came from second place to oust Democratic U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler in 1992.
Democrats argued November runoffs are too expensive considering how few voters turn out for them.
Still, white Democrats defeated an effort by black lawmakers to also allow a 45 percent plurality in primaries.
"The white Democrats think it benefits them to have the requirement in the primary," Mr. McDonald said. "The debate over all these policy issues is deeply self-serving."