This article was written by Krista Brewer for Political Peach.
As we rest up from the runoff of the century, voters and our General Assembly should take a serious look at why we have runoffs and consider better ways to select our elected representatives.
Our runoff procedures are unique. About 11 other states have runoffs in primary elections, but only Georgia and Louisiana require runoffs in both primary and general elections when no candidate gets over 50 percent of the votes. Our current system has its roots in the Jim Crow era and was established as a way to make it easier for whites to unite to prevent a Black candidate from gaining a majority of votes. A good overview that explains the history of this system is an article “Georgia’s Runoff Election: A Sordid History Underlies the Peach State’s Election Process.”
The racist roots of our runoff system are not the only problem. Usually, the more diehard voters return to polls for runoffs. Often these more partisan voters will select the more extreme candidate. Also, our runoff system costs a lot of money, which is mostly borne by each of our 159 counties. The price tag for a county is about as much as a regular election and can easily be millions of dollars for a state-wide runoff. All the precincts have to open. Early voting days and locations have to be offered. And absentee ballots have to be sent out.
Finally, and perhaps most frustrating is that Georgia must allow nine weeks between an election and a runoff if a federal candidate is on the ballot to allow time for military and overseas ballots to be sent and returned.This time lag between the election and a runoff is frustrating for candidates and voters alike and contributes to voter drop off.
Georgia voters do not have to contend with this arcane, cumbersome, expensive procedure designed originally to limit Black voting power. At the very least, we could keep the runoff system for primaries but eliminate it for general elections, declaring the candidate with the most votes, or a plurality, the winner. A variation of this idea is to establish a plurality requirement, of a certain percent of the vote, or a runoff would be triggered. Another simple change would be to allow overseas voting via email, enabling us to shorten the time between an election and a runoff.
But the change that would make the most sense, and that other states are adopting or considering is a system called Rank Choice Voting or an Instant Runoff. This method involves voters making a first and second choice at the same time. If the first choice does not get a majority of votes, then the second choice is considered. A good webinar starting around the 15:40 time mark explains how the ballot might look and how the counting takes place. And this map shows where and how it’s being tried or considered in the United States.
Georgia voting advocates and state legislators have been looking at this type of change as a way to eliminate runoffs. Representatives Stacey Evans and Wes Cantrell wrote an article recently in the AJC, and Representative. Matthew Wilson has announced he is introducing legislation calling for Rank Choice Voting. The good news is that our much maligned new voting equipment can handle this type of voting.
In a number of significant ways, Georgia has been on the forefront of voter suppression methods such as voter ID requirements and precinct closures, but also we have pioneered some positive election reforms, such as automatic voter registration, early voting expansion and no excuse absentee voting. We could likewise be on the forefront of reform by adopting a state-wide rank choice system that would eliminate our runoffs, leave behind the sordid, racist history, make elections less expensive and enable the selection of candidates acceptable to a larger percent of our citizens.
About the Author
Krista Brewer is a native Atlantan who has a professional background in writing, reporting and editing. For several decades she has closely followed Georgia politics, focusing on topics such as healthcare, voting and immigrant rights, and budget and environmental issues. She is active on Twitter and invites readers to follow her @KristaRBrewer