On June 20, in a special election for Georgia’s 6th house district Karen Handel defeated Jon Ossoff, ending a campaign that had started almost the moment the 2016 campaign had ended. The whole country seemed to be paying attention to the first big contested race in the Trump era, which was portrayed as a precursor to 2018 congressional elections. In the end, the race was negative and grueling--with one of the final ads associating Ossoff with an “unhinged left” that endorsed the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise. But it didn’t have to be.
The race was the single most expensive house race ever in U.S. history. Start to finish, more than $50 million dollars were spent on the election. The Jon Ossoff campaign raised a reported $24 million and received $7.5 million from outside groups, while Handel’s campaign raised $5 million and received $18.8 million from outside groups.
What’s worse, the spending of this race bore no apparent effect on turnout. In the June runoff, 260,316 voters turned out from the polls, representing 44% of residents over 18. Though the runoff turnout seems relatively high, it is not when compared to other house races. In 2016, there were 37 contested (more than one side raising money) races for open US House seats. The average amount spent in these races by all the candidates was 2.7 million dollars. In all 37 of the 2016 house races voters turned out in higher rates than in GA’s 6th. The turnout comparisons require some context, as presidential-year general election turnout is typically much higher than special election turnout, but the data shows very clearly the unprecedented spending on this election did not result in similarly unprecedented turnout.
The high price tag of this race was largely due to its duration and the national attention it received. The money funded radio ads, TV ads, and handouts as both campaigns bombarded the residents of the 6th district for a full two months between the April special election and the June runoff. One Reddit user posted an online stream of the mailers delivered in the 6th in that two-month span alone, which contained over 30 different mailers--that’s more than 1 every two days if you are keeping track. That also doesn’t include the TV and radio ads, or door to door canvassing.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) would have made the runoff in Georgia’s 6th District unnecessary. In an RCV system, voters could have ranked all 18 candidates in the order of choice. Since no one won more than 50% of the vote initially, Andre Pollard, the independent who received the fewest votes in the first round, would have been eliminated and votes for him would instantly count for their next ranked choice. That process would repeat until the final two candidates remained. It would achieve the goals of the runoff election in a single round of voting, without the added time or cost of a second campaign.
Based on the results from the April special election, had every voter stuck with party lines in their rankings, even if the independents only voted for independents, Karen Handel would have won in April. This would have achieved the same result, while saving the state money in election administration, the campaigns time and money, and the residents from having to vote twice and listen to two months of negative campaigning.
Even with the benefits of RCV in Georgia, the result of this race still would still be winner-take-all. The 49% of voters who preferred a Democrat or Independent would be represented by a Republican; and if Ossoff had won instead, then those who preferred a Republican or Independent would be represented by a Democrat. But there is a way that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can all win representation.
The Fair Representation Act (FRA), HR 3057, implements RCV in federal elections and creates larger, more diverse multi-winner congressional districts. The total number of U.S. House Representatives would stay the same, but they would either be elected statewide or in districts with 3-5 members. This would allow minorities like Republicans in Massachusetts and Democrats in Georgia to elect representatives that share their political views and would decrease the polarizing influence of party primaries.
In Georgia, the 14 current congressional districts would be condensed to four multi-winner districts: three districts electing three congressional members and one district electing five congressional members. FairVote used Autoredistrict to draw sample multi-winner district maps. The result was a map that would likely be much more proportional. The partisanship of the districts suggests the election of eight or nine Republicans and five or six Democrats, instead of the current 10 Republicans and four Democrats. Those elected would also better represent the “big tents” of their parties, with Republicans and Democrats sharing constituents with overlapping political values.
The FRA’s implementation of multi-winner districts would level the playing field by lowering the threshold for election, giving minorities a better chance at being elected. For example, people of color currently make up 29% of the Georgia legislative delegation, though they make up 40% of the population. Under the Fair Representation Act, African Americans, the largest minority in GA, in three out of four districts in Georgia would have enough voting power to elect a representative. Georgia’s Latino population would also have significant enough influence in one of the districts that they would likely elect a candidate of choice as well.
Learn more about the Fair Representation Act by going to FairRepAct.com.
Photo Credit: AJC.com