Runoff elections exist to ensure party nominees have broad support among voters. The runoff serves as protection against candidates who threaten to win their party’s nomination with only niche appeal. However, this system breaks down in competitive and crowded primary races, and Tuesday’s 2020 Republican Primary for Georgia’s 9th Congressional District is a timely example of what can go wrong.
The 9th District, in Northeastern Georgia, became an open-seat race after the incumbent announced he would pursue a Senate seat. This, compounded by the fact that it is regarded as a safe seat for Republicans, explains why the race has drawn a historically large field of nine candidates.
Of the nine, State Representative Matt Gurtler led the field with 21.5 percent, followed by businessperson Andrew Clyde with 18.8 percent. Gurtler and Clyde will advance to a primary runoff election on August 11th, but their combined vote total represents just over 40 percent of the Republican voters in their district. In other words, almost 60 percent of Republican voters wanted a candidate other than the two who will face off in the runoff election.
State Representative Kevin Tanner, third-place candidate with 15.4 percent, was only a few thousand votes away from earning a place in the runoff election. Tanner advertises himself as a person who can get things done, in contrast to Gurtler’s reputation as “Dr. No” for voting against more legislation than other state representatives. Tanner even targeted Gurtler during a virtual debate about Gurtler’s lack of “accomplishing anything in office”.
There may be a sizable bloc of District 9 voters who would prefer a pragmatic candidate rather than a staunch “Dr. No”. Another candidate is State Senator John Wilkinson, who said in a questionnaire that he is “more interested in getting things done than proving a personal point” -- a trait that seems to resonate with Tanner’s point of view. Wilkinson finished with 12.2% of the vote. Is there a group of like-minded voters who split their votes between Tanner and Wilkinson, preventing either of them from earning a spot in the runoff election? While we cannot know for certain, we can observe the consequence: the top two finishers, Gurtler and Clyde, head to the August runoff with 40 percent support between them, with the other 60 percent of voters not voting for either choice.
If the goal of a runoff election is to nominate a candidate with majority support, how do we justify an election type in which a majority of voters don’t even see their preferences reflected on the ballot? The means do not serve the ultimate goal of majority support.
Georgia could improve their elections by switching to ranked choice voting (RCV). This would allow the state to avoid depending upon costly runoff elections. Additionally, RCV eliminates the problem of vote-splitting between similar candidates by allowing voters to rank candidates on the ballot. When a candidate is eliminated from the race, their supporters’ ballots are transferred to each voter’s next choice, allowing blocs of voters to coalesce around a preferred candidate. RCV produces a majority winner in a single high-turnout election, saving money for the state and ensuring every voter’s voice is heard.