Georgia Avoids Low Turnout Senate Runoff

Posted by Chris Hughes on November 08, 2016

News outlets are now calling Georgia’s Senate race for Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson, who will be elected to his third term as Georgia’s Senior Senator. Isakson has defeated both Democrat Jim Barksdale and Libertarian Allen Buckley. There was a time earlier in the campaign where the result was not so clear-cut, and Georgia may have had to conduct a statewide runoff election for Senator due to the majority vote requirement enshrined in their constitution for all public offices.

Polls conducted over the course of the election regularly showed Isakson with between 44% and 50% support, Jim Barksdale with as much as 42% support, and Buckley picking up the rest. In the last couple weeks, Isakson finally pulled away and managed to consolidate more than 50% support. But if he had not done so, Georgia election administrators would now be forced to start planning for a statewide runoff vote to be held on January 10 (a full week after the new Congress is sworn in) just for Senate. There’s also bound to be a few Local or State races that need runoffs: in the 14 general elections since 1988 (the last year in which election results are freely available), half have required at least one runoff race be held after Election Day, to say nothing of the many primary runoffs held each year. The runoff calendar is complicated, though, and State and Local runoffs will be held on December 6, separate from the Federal runoff.

The intent behind majority vote requirements is, at heart, good: they uphold majority rule.

Unfortunately, the runoffs frequently used to meet that majority requirement come at a cost: low turnout, high prices, and a less representative democracy. Georgia has had two Senate runoffs in the last 30 years, in 1992 and 2008. Both saw turnout drop more than 50% from the General Election, to just over 30% turnout statewide. Georgia’s majority requirement also applies to primaries, which means Georgia has held 24 federal primary runoffs since 1994. Primaries already have low turnout; primary runoffs in Georgia have turnout decline, on average, another 30.5%. Only 8% of registered voters participated in the last statewide federal primary runoffs in Georgia, during the 2014 Senate Campaign.

The stakes in these federal runoffs are high. Since only one in five Georgians live in a legislative district that will be contested by both major parties in the general election, the small group of voters that show up to primary runoffs will in many cases end up deciding who represents their district well before November. It goes without saying that general election runoffs are just as, if not more, important: they’re the ultimate deciding factor in who will represent Georgia in Congress. To pour salt on the wound, taxpayers are on the hook for the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to hold these runoff elections, in which most of them don’t participate.

These big declines in participation, along with the expensive nature of runoffs, are problematic. This is where ranked choice voting comes in.

Also known as “instant runoff voting” because it efficiently replaces runoffs, ranked choice voting is a simple change to the way we vote that would make elections more functional and less expensive. It allows voters to rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice on Election Day. All first choices are counted, and if a candidate has a majority, then they win like any other election. But if nobody has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those voters have their ballot instantly count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority, and is declared the winner.

Ranked choice voting achieves the goals of a runoff election without the low-turnout and high costs associated with holding a runoff. That’s why cities across the country in California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota use it as an alternative to runoffs. In addition, cities in Florida, Michigan, New Mexico and Tennessee are waiting to implement it after securing voter approval.

Other southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, have adopted ranked ballots for military and overseas voters in primary elections, so that sending and receiving a second ballot overseas for runoff elections isn’t necessary. Voters in these states return two ballots before the primary. On the first ballot, they select one candidate to receive their vote in the primary. On the second ballot, they rank candidates in order of preference so that if the primary election requires a runoff, their runoff ballot counts for whichever remaining candidate is ranked highest. Georgia could at the very least join these states in sending ranked ballots overseas and shorten the long 63 day gap between the primary and runoff, which research indicates dampens turnout even more.

Luckily, Georgia avoided the extra costs of running an extra federal runoff this year. But as the state’s demographics shift over the next couple of election cycles, non-majority results are likely to crop up in more and more Senate, House, and state races, leading to more expensive, low turnout runoffs. Georgia should consider adopting ranked choice voting sooner rather than later to avoid these costly, low-turnout runoffs. There would be initial costs associated with introducing ranked choice voting, but it would quickly pay for itself. No doubt, Georgia taxpayers can likely think of better ways to spend the money the state would save, while avoiding the low turnout that will almost certainly plague runoffs across the state.

Image Source: US Embassy Sweden

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