Voices & Choices

Georgia’s deeply flawed runoffs raise interest in ranked choice voting

Georgia’s deeply flawed runoffs raise interest in ranked choice voting

After months of waiting, Georgia voters will return to the polls tomorrow for a number of primary runoff elections. In these races—for Republicans, governor and lieutenant governor and for Democrats, the 6th and 7th Congressional Districts—no candidate received a first round majority.

Republicans may see more people cast a vote this time around, as gubernatorial runoffs sometimes yield higher turnout. Recent polls suggest that Brian Kemp, who initially trailed Casey Cagle 39 percent to 26 percent, is surging in the final days before the election.

Unfortunately, that campaign has devolved into a series of personal attacks. As the Daily Kos highlighted last week, the focus has shifted away from the issues. Negative advertisements that take aim at the other candidate’s character have reduced the race to a series of soundbites, rather than serious discussion of the problems facing people in Georgia.

For Democrats, a different problem looms: far fewer voters will show up to vote this time around. As FairVote has previously documented, turnout in stand-alone congressional runoffs nearly always declines. We’ve seen that trend continue this year, as participation dropped in 23 of 24 congressional runoffs by an average of 44 percent. In 10 contests, turnout was especially low, declining by over 50 percent.

As this combination of divisive campaigning and low turnout swirls in Georgia, more people are talking about reforming this deeply flawed runoff system.

For example, one columnist endorsed ranked choice voting as a solution to plummeting turnout. He pointed to the nine-week gap between elections as a serious defect with the current system, which our report links to declining participation. As the columnist put it, “[T]hese contests are like a baseball game that wasn’t settled until the 17th inning. And only the die-hards stick around for the 17th inning.”

In addition, the Gainesville Times editorial board offered RCV as a potential reform to runoff elections that drain candidates and voters alike. After lamenting campaigns that “highlight personalities, endorsements, scandals and missteps instead of issues,” the board questioned whether the runoff system produces democratic results. RCV, they noted, is “an intriguing idea” that could “give voters a break” from this exhausting and dissatisfying method of choosing Georgia’s leaders.

Thankfully, we’ve already seen the successes of RCV on the ground. Just last month, Maine held the first-ever statewide RCV election. It went very smoothly. Turnout surged and campaigns remained civil. What’s more, instant runoffs ensured that voters didn’t need to return to the polls months later; majority winners were selected with just a single ballot. As interest in reforming Georgia’s runoffs grows, voters of both parties should look to Maine as a clear example that ranked choice voting offers a better way forward.

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