Tab for Tuesday's Ga. runoff: $15 per voter

Just a hair more than 5 percent of all of Georgia’s active registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s runoff election, a minuscule turnout that ended up costing taxpayers roughly $15 a vote.

Election officials spent about $4 million on the runoff, which is roughly the same that it cost for a general election. But by one key measure — cost per vote — the runoff was nearly 10 times more expensive. The general election, which drew more than 50 percent of active Georgia voters, cost about $1.55 per voter.

And that has prompted questions on whether the state’s runoff system is antiquated, expensive and in need of a change.

“You need to keep the same number of precincts open for 12 hours, have the same number of ballots, machines and workers, regardless of whether there’s a big turnout or not,” said Michael Barnes, assistant director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University.

A runoff occurs when no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. Runoffs in Georgia were instituted in the early 20th century when Democrats controlled the state and feared a candidate representing a small faction of the party could win a multi-candidate contest by simply outpolling his opponents.

According to state officials, Tuesday’s runoff drew about 263,000 voters statewide, a far cry from the more than 2.5 million voters in the Nov. 2 general election, which included the governor’s race.

Among those few at the polls on Tuesday was 60-year-old Woodstock resident LaVerne Menear, who noted that, apart from some election workers, she was the only one there.

“I was disappointed that I didn’t see any other voters, but that’s not going to keep me from coming back.”

As an African-American and a woman, Menear said her vote is too precious because so many people have fought for her rights.

“It’s a hard-earned right for me as a woman of color,” she said. “I don’t think I would sit out a single election if I can help it.”

Apparently, not everyone feels that way.

While runoffs don’t tend to attract many voters, bad weather and the lack of a big-name draw didn’t help turnout. The runoff decided a handful of races, including two statewide posts and a few local elections.

“If you go back and look at previous elections, you see that most people come out for the main event, the general election, to vote for a president or governor,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

“But, if it comes down to a few tossup races without a lot of name recognition, people typically decide that they have better things to do.”

Still, the state has little choice but to require counties to staff all of its more than 2,800 precincts.

“We don’t have the discretion to say which election should be fully staffed or not,” said Matt Carrothers, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office.

There have been attempts in the past to change the system.

Democrats altered runoff requirements in the early 1990s after Democrat Wyche Fowler lost a U.S. Senate race to Republican Paul Coverdell. Fowler got more votes than Coverdell in the 1992 general election, but neither candidate broke 50 percent.

In the runoff, Coverdell beat Fowler, which infuriated Democrats, who controlled the state Legislature.

They changed the law so that a candidate had to win only 45 percent of the vote in a general election to avoid a runoff.

Republicans, however, changed the rule back to a majority vote in 2005 after they gained control of the Legislature. The GOP was still smarting over a 1996 U.S. Senate race in which Democrat Max Cleland narrowly defeated Republican Guy Millner.

Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said that other states have looked to their bottom line and decided against runoffs.

In 2002, Florida under Gov. Jeb Bush eliminated runoff elections in favor of a simple coin toss.

“I’m not saying that one method is better than another,” Swint said. “And to me, it seems like a cop-out, but if the race is so close that it’s a virtual tie, why not toss a coin?”

Ion Sancho, an election supervisor in Leon County, Fla., said he doesn’t know whether the coin toss leads to good governance. But he said it’s thrifty.

“Whether we have 4 percent of the electorate or 50 percent, it still costs us the same amount of money,” he said.

Both Bullock and Swint said Georgia should consider allowing voters to rank their choices, thereby eliminating the need for costly runoffs.

What some other states do “is ask the voter to rank their choices, so if their first choice doesn’t win, then another candidate can be their second or third choice. That, to me, is the best way to reflect the will of the people,” Swint said.

The bottom line, said Art Johnson, who cast his ballot in Tuesday’s runoff, is that it’s the choice of the people to vote or not vote.

“I’ve been voting in every election since I first voted in 1960, and I’m not going to miss one if I can help it,” said the Cobb County resident, who works as a financial officer. “I’m against any idea of a coin toss, even if it saves money.

“We, the people, elect our officials. We shouldn’t give it up to a game of chance.”

Staff writer Jim Tharpe and staff photographer Bob Andres contributed to this article.