This month the state of Georgia held 27 runoff elections, which illustrated some issues with the state’s election system. Echoing a call earlier this year from University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, the numbers help make the case for ranked choice voting.
The runoffs cost the counties involved a collective 1.2 million dollars.* Voter turnout was lower in 26 of the 27 runoffs compared to the November first round. The top two candidates who advanced to the runoffs were not always representative of the districts they were running to represent -- most dramatically, in State Senate District 6, two Democrats advanced to the runoff though 51 percent of voters chose Republican candidates in the first round (that vote was split among five Republican candidates, none of whom made the top two, as described more fully below).
The implementation of ranked choice voting could fix these issues for Georgia voters. Georgia currently uses a majority voting system for all state and local elections, meaning that a candidate must win at least 50 percent of the vote in order to win the election. If no candidate reaches 50 percent in the first round, the election advances to a runoff between the top two vote getters from the first round. While this system does guarantee that the winner will ultimately be chosen by a majority of runoff voters, it results in many runoffs, which are costly for the state and frequently have low turnout.
Of the 27 runoffs that took place on Dec. 5, four were for state legislative seats (State Senate District 6, State Senate District 39, Assembly District 60 and Assembly District 89), four were mayoral races (Atlanta, East Point, Peachtree City and Roswell), two were Fulton county-wide seats, and 17 were other municipal elections. While the turnout drop off was generally mild, the extent to which November voters turned out again in December varied by size of county and type of race.
Overall, 26 percent of registered voters voted in the November 2017 races, while 23 percent of registered voters voted in December. The only race where turnout did not drop was Atlanta’s City Council District 9 race, in which 7,060 (28.9 percent) people voted in November and 7,170 (29.4 percent) people voted in December. The two races in Fayette County (Peachtree City mayor and city council Post 3) saw the biggest turnout drop off in percent (7 percent), while the Fulton county-wide race for the county commission chair saw the highest drop off in number of voters, from 143,424 (22.4 percent) to 113,364 (17.7 percent).
Though the drop off rate was less extreme than other runoff elections - particularly primary runoff elections - that it exists at all is an unnecessary disservice to the voters. This is particularly true for contests where the initial turnout was already below 40 percent in most cases. Implementing ranked choice voting would maintain majority support without a second election, effectively allowing all voters from Election Day to also participate in the runoff.
Low turnout isn’t the only aspect of top two runoffs that causes misrepresentation of Georgia’s electorate. Georgia’s 6th Senate District had been represented by Hunter Hill, a Republican, since 2012. The district re-elected Hill in November of 2016 with a margin of 52-48 over the Democratic challenger. The seat opened up when Hill announced his run for governor, causing a special election in November 2017. Eight different candidates ran for the seat, three Democrats and five Republicans. The Republican candidates split the majority vote, allowing two Democrats, Jen Joran and Jaha Howard, to advance to the runoff even though Republicans collectively earned more votes than Democrats (51-49).
Jordan ultimately won the runoff with more than 60 percent of the vote, but more than 7,000 voters from the first round did not bother voting at all in the second. We can’t say for sure that Jordan would not have been able to win the runoff against a Republican, but the top two system still elected a winner that was not representative of the majority of first round voters.
Ranked choice voting would have allowed voters to rank their preferences, avoiding the vote splitting that occured in this election and allowing voters a greater choice without the need for an additional election.
*Based on data collected by the SOS office in 2016, counties self-reporting costs.