On December 1, voters in Georgia’s 5th Congressional District voted in a runoff for the special election to fill the final 33 days of the late-Congressman John Lewis’s term in Congress.
If a candidate had received a majority in the initial election on September 29, they could have been sworn into Congress immediately and been present for major debates on issues like coronavirus relief that have defined the Fall. Yet because Georgia law requires runoff elections to be held on a separate day months later, representation for these voters was delayed until the term is almost over.
Separate-day runoffs almost always see a dramatic decline in turnout compared to the initial election, and this time was no exception. In September, 31,000 people turned out, but only about 22,000 voted this time. Our research has found that runoffs are especially burdensome for voters of color, who see turnout decline at a higher rate than white voters. We will never know if the results would have been different if this runoff had higher turnout, but low turnout in any election leaves open questions about whether the results truly represent what the public wants.
There is also a financial cost to holding separate-day runoffs. Estimates say this runoff could have cost Georgia taxpayers over a million dollars, on top of the cost of the initial election, at a time when the state is already facing revenue shortfalls during the pandemic.
The low turnout and financial costs of long, drawout runoff processes can be avoided going forward if Georgia adopts ranked choice voting (RCV). It acts as an instant runoff by asking voters upfront who their second or third choice would be if their first is eliminated. RCV could save Georgia millions each year and ensure winners are chosen by the larger, more representative electorate that shows up for the initial race.
Thankfully, leaders in Georgia are beginning to recognize the virtues of RCV. One such figure is Congresswoman-elect Nikema Williams, who recently won the race for the Fifth District’s next full two-year term beginning in January. She says election reforms, including RCV, will be one of her top focuses once sworn in.
“I will centralize the most marginalized in my decision-making in Congress the same way Congressman Lewis did. I will fight for numerous reforms to our voting process, including same-day voter registration, restoring voting rights to convicted felons, ranked-choice voting, and standardizing our vote-by-mail process.” - Congresswoman-elect Nikema Williams