Opinion: Instant runoffs would provide instant relief

A poll worker sanitizes voting cards during early voting at the Cobb County Elections office in Marietta on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. In addition to runoff races for both of Georgia's U.S. Senate seats, a statewide runoff for a Public Service Commission seat is also on the ballot. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
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A poll worker sanitizes voting cards during early voting at the Cobb County Elections office in Marietta on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. In addition to runoff races for both of Georgia's U.S. Senate seats, a statewide runoff for a Public Service Commission seat is also on the ballot. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

The twin runoffs for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats have attracted nationwide attention, visits from the nation’s most powerful politicians, and more than $300 million in campaign spending with an estimated $200 million more to spend in just four weeks. But there’s a problem with this approach. While requiring candidates to have majority backing to win office is a noble goal - distinguishing us from other states where candidates can win with just a small fraction of voters supporting them – traditional runoffs aren’t the best way to achieve it.

Georgians might be asked to go to the polls four times to elect a single office holder -- in a primary, primary runoff, general election, and general election runoff. Voters find this process overwhelming, and turnout declines precipitously between the first and second rounds of voting. Combining these runoffs with a pandemic makes for a particularly dreadful combination. Shouldn’t we make it easier for people to vote, not harder?

Rep. Wes Cantrell
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Rep. Wes Cantrell

There’s also an issue of good governance. Holding runoffs weeks after the initial election increases the time that candidates must spend campaigning, fundraising, and attacking each other rather than representing constituents and preparing to take office.

Thankfully, there is a more efficient way to achieve a majority than asking voters to vote again. Georgians should embrace instant runoff voting (IRV), a simple reform that conducts the runoff instantly by letting voters rank their choices when they vote. If your first choice doesn’t win, your No. 2 choice can be counted. It’s the same as any other scenario where you make a backup choice. If you visit your favorite bakery ravenous for a slice of local pecan pie, only to find out it is unavailable, you don’t leave empty-handed. You certainly don’t wait two months to come back and choose between a peach cobbler and an apple fritter. You select a backup choice in real time. Elections can be just as simple.

Stacey Evans, who is running for governor against Stacey Abrams in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, wants a “full accounting” of how many voters were registered by the New Georgia Project. Evans says federal election data do not back up the organization’s claims. Abrams founded the group and headed it as its CEO. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
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Stacey Evans, who is running for governor against Stacey Abrams in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, wants a “full accounting” of how many voters were registered by the New Georgia Project. Evans says federal election data do not back up the organization’s claims. Abrams founded the group and headed it as its CEO. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Administering local runoffs puts an immense financial burden on our communities. Looking past the Senate race, over half of Georgia’s counties have fewer than 25,000 citizens. They each have their own commissioners, sheriff, school board, etc. If any of those offices has a race with more than two candidates, then the county may have to foot the bill for a runoff election, often for just one position. Inevitably, turnout to these runoff elections is low and the decision is made by a few hundred voters -- hardly a representative election.

Instant runoff voting has a record of success in cities and counties around the country; it’s more than a thought experiment. Utah and Virginia have had great success. It’s a proven method to ensure more votes matter. Allowing local races to have the option of an instant runoff would save time, money and increase turnout.

Instant runoffs can deliver benefits in all Georgia elections, but even partial steps could provide relief. Some states already implement IRV for the overseas military. By doing this alone, we could shorten our runoffs from 9 weeks back to the 4-week runoffs we used to enjoy. Instead of fearing an election conversation over Christmas dinner, our current runoff would be in the rearview mirror already. When we vote for president every four years, the use of IRV in that race could ensure that the winner of our state’s 16 electors does so with a majority of Georgia voters behind them.

Like runoffs, instant runoffs ensure majority rule in our elections, but without doubling the costs of election administration. They also encourage candidates to be more civil towards each other and avoid the vicious attacks that plague politics today. To win an instant runoff election, a candidate must find ways to appeal to the voters of other candidates as a second or third choice, rather than just depress turnout on the other side to make it to the second round. In some elections, we have even seen candidates endorse each other as second choices. That means fewer nasty attack ads flooding our airwaves and more focus on the issues that matter to Georgians.

Georgia is the perfect place to offer our citizens instant runoff voting. Georgia’s current voting equipment is already compatible with IRV, so there would not be an additional cost of purchasing new machines. Local races would save time and money. Members of our military would receive instant runoff ballots instead of forcing them to wait for runoff ballots, and our state’s choice for president would get a majority of the vote instead of just a plurality.

While the country’s eyes are on Georgia, we should take the opportunity to be leaders in good governance by improving the way we hold elections. Given all of its advantages, letting Georgians choose instant runoffs over 9-week runoff elections will give us the instant relief we all deserve.

Wes Cantrell, from Woodstock, is a member of the Georgia House of Representatives from the 22nd District and is a Republican. Stacey Evans is a newly elected member of the Georgia House for the 57th district. She is a Democrat and former state representative for the 42nd district.