At Issue: Runoffs: A Relic

Kerwin Swint

Only eight states in the country, Georgia being one of them, require a runoff election in any party primary if one candidate does not receive a majority. Two other states require primary runoffs in limited situations.

But only one state requires a runoff in the November general election if no candidate gets a majority of votes on Election Day. And it’s us. Just Georgia. That’s a pretty exclusive club. So we must be the only state in the entire country doing it right, right?

Well, let’s see. Because the federal courts have ruled that military personnel overseas must have adequate time to get absentee ballots returned, Georgia’s runoffs occur nine weeks after Election Day. That’s nine more weeks of campaigning and fundraising and robocalls and political mail and political polling and campaign emails and yard signs and attack campaigning. Did I mention more robocalls?

It also means that taxpayers are paying for another entire round of elections in all of Georgia’s 159 counties in the case of statewide runoffs, which means upwards of $5 million to $6 million that could otherwise go toward education or healthcare. Not to mention that the turnout for runoff elections often plummets, which means the outcome is being determined by a small number of people. This just isn’t a good business model.

Georgia’s runoff system, and most of the other states that have runoffs, are a throwback to the 1960s one-party state system in the South dominated by the Democratic Party. After Republican Bo Calloway was almost elected governor in 1966, the state Constitution was amended to require a majority vote to win an election. Its purpose at the time was to help assure one-party control. Its purpose now is, I guess, robocalls?

Some justify leaving a runoff system in place because in Georgia there are usually third-party candidates on the general election ballot, at least in statewide races, making it harder for one of the major party candidates to get a majority on Election Day. Yet other states have multiple candidates on the general election ballot, and they are content with the victory going to the candidate with the most votes, whether a majority or not. One could easily make a case for eliminating runoffs altogether.

But if one must have a runoff, whether in a primary or a general election, there is a better way to do it. How? Ranked-choice voting.

I’m willing to bet that many of you have at least a passing familiarity with ranked-choice voting. It’s sometimes called an instant runoff, because that’s essentially what it is.

Here’s how it works. For any given office, such as governor or attorney general, voters rank as many candidates as they want in order of preference. So a voter would have a first choice, second choice, third and so on. If no candidate gets a majority, the one with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and voters who picked that candidate have their ballots for second choice counted. The process repeats and last-place candidates are eliminated until one candidate receives a majority of votes. This method works for any type of election: statewide, county or local.

Ranked-choice voting is relatively new but is in use in a number of counties and cities across the country. In 2018, Maine became the first state to adopt it for use in statewide elections. It is also used in a number of other countries. Voters in areas where it is used report more satisfaction, possibly because it encourages candidates to reach out to more types of voters, rather than just mobilizing their own base. Proponents of ranked-choice voting believe it results in more positive and substantive campaigns because candidates are less likely to engage in attack campaigning for fear of turning off voters who might be willing to make them their second choice on the ballot.

No voting system is perfect, and neither is ranked-choice voting. Critics consider it too complicated, for example. And in some areas where it is used, the same type of prototypical candidates emerge the ultimate winners, namely the candidates who raise the most money and have the highest name recognition. So from that standpoint, it may not change much about the type of candidates who win. But there is little doubt that it eliminates months-long runoff election campaigns and saves millions of dollars in the process, all while preserving a democratic process.

It’s fair, it’s rational, it’s democratic, it’s quick. No waiting for nine weeks. No more races being decided by a tiny number of voters. Saves literally millions of dollars. And no more robocalls.

Categories: At Issue, Opinions