Georgia's Costly, Low Turnout Runoffs Can Be a Thing of the Past

Posted by Ben Fogarty on September 09, 2016

Georgia voters returned to the polls on July 26th for a round of primary runoffs, where they were asked to choose between the top two vote-getters in any primary race where no candidate won a majority of the vote. Throughout this election season, FairVote has followed primary runoffs around the country and written about their many failings, including the enormous cost of one Alabama runoff and the dismal turnout for Texas’s runoffs. Unfortunately, Georgia’s July 26th contests appear to be another example of these failings.

Asking voters to return to the polls for a second round of primaries makes the democratic process less accessible and dampens voter turnout. For the primary runoffs, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office reported that less than twelve percent of the electorate voted. Democracy is at its best when everyone participates, but that is far from what happened in this year’s primary process.

The drop in turnout between the primary election and the runoff is often enough to impact the results of a race. In one runoff for a Georgia State Senate nomination, the two candidates -- Tonya Anderson and Dee Dawkins-Haigler -- were separated by only 10 votes. Despite the competitiveness of this race, turnout in the runoff plummeted by over 4,000 voters compared the the primary election. Every voter’s opinion really did matter in this race, but more than 4,000 fewer people expressed their opinion in the runoff.

For some seats, these low-turnout primaries are also the last time that voters have a choice in who will represent them. Since many state legislature elections are only contested by candidates from one party, the primary elections are often the only time that voters have any input into who will represent them. Seven of the eleven candidates for the Georgia State House of Representatives who won in a primary runoff will be running unopposed in the general election.

Holding a second election does more than just burden voters and dampen turnout, however. Runoffs also come at a significant cost to taxpayers. In Richmond County, Georgia, officials estimated that their 2014 primary runoff cost the county around $100,000 to administer. With many different races going to runoffs across the state, taxpayers in many Georgia counties can expect to pay a similar price to hold runoff elections.

Runoffs are a poor way to get consensus primary winners given the significant decline in turnout from the primary, yet they come at a high cost. Instead, states should look to ranked choice voting to elect majority winners while also eliminating the drawbacks of runoff elections. Ranked choice voting allows voters to make just one trip to the polls to participate in a single, decisive election, and eliminates the cost to taxpayers of holding a second election.

Those are not the only benefits of ranked choice voting. In 2013 and 2014, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll surveyed more than 4,800 voters in seven cities using ranked choice voting and fourteen cities that don’t use it. Voters in ranked choice voting cities generally thought that candidates ran more civil and satisfying campaigns, since candidates needed to reach out beyond their own base of support and also compete to be other voters second or third choice. Likewise, a strong majority of voters in ranked choice voting cities supported the use of ranked choice voting in their local elections.

At the very least, Georgia legislators can alleviate the logistical burdens that runoff elections place on military and overseas voters. Currently, there is a bill in the Georgia State Assembly that would allow those voters to rank their choices for the primary election, so that sending and receiving a second ballot for runoff elections isn’t necessary. By doing so, military and overseas voters would have their runoff vote go to whichever remaining candidate they ranked highest. Other states, including Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, have already enacted similar legislation with successful results, and doing so would be a great first step towards improving the primary election process in Georgia.

As long as Georgia continues to hold runoff elections, its citizens will continue to pay high costs for an electoral system that fosters lower turnout and hinders their voice in government. Ranked choice voting is a common sense solution to give more voters a voice in Georgia primaries without sacrificing consensus winners. With action, costly, low turnout primary runoffs in Georgia can be a thing of the past.

Image Source: Elect Tonya Peterson Anderson

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