Runoffs survive in Georgia as lawmakers fixate on other election bills

Republicans turn to election funding, voter challenges and drop boxes
The Georgia Senate Ethics Committee votes in favor of moving forward Senate Bill 221, elections legislation, during a committee meeting in February at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. (Olivia Bowdoin for the AJC).

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

The Georgia Senate Ethics Committee votes in favor of moving forward Senate Bill 221, elections legislation, during a committee meeting in February at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. (Olivia Bowdoin for the AJC).

Runoffs are here to stay in Georgia, at least for now, as Republican lawmakers instead focused on the priorities of election critics: restricting outside funding, banning drop boxes and enabling challenges to voters’ eligibility.

The General Assembly declined to vote on eliminating runoffs, an idea that enjoyed the support of 58% of Georgia voters who participated in a statewide poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January.

Georgia is one of only three states in the nation, along with Louisiana and Mississippi, that requires runoffs when candidates fall short of winning a majority in general elections. Most other states award victory to whichever candidates win the most votes, even if they receive less than 50% of the total.

Three grueling U.S. Senate races have gone to runoffs in Georgia since 2020, resulting in wins for Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

“We all got burned out on these last runoffs — all the ads, how it just kept going, and the amount of money spent on these elections. It’s like a national debt of a small country,” said Republican state Sen. Rick Williams, the vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, which handles election bills. “But how do we handle it? Elections are complex.”

A bill that would have ended general election runoffs as long as a candidate wins at least 45% support received a committee hearing, but it wasn’t considered for a vote.

“Georgians are over it. The majority of Georgians want to get rid of runoff elections,” state Rep. Saira Draper, a Democrat from Atlanta, told the House Governmental Affairs Committee last week. “When you have a third-party candidate that pulls a few percentage points, that’s enough to throw us into a runoff.”

Meanwhile, legislators moved forward other bills and might revive some ideas that haven’t yet advanced.

The state Senate passed a bill to prevent county governments from accepting money from nonprofit organizations such as the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and donated about $43 million to various Georgia counties in 2020 and $2 million to DeKalb County this year.

Supporters of the bill said they’re concerned that Democratic-leaning counties received more money than Republican areas, though the Center for Tech and Civic Life has said it distributed money to counties that requested it regardless of their political leanings. The money funded items including election equipment, absentee ballot postage, voter education and protective gear during the coronavirus pandemic.

Separate proposals to empower challenges to voter eligibility and outlaw the state’s remaining ballot drop boxes passed a Senate committee but didn’t receive votes in the full Senate. Williams said he still supports those proposals. They could be attached to other bills during the legislative process.

Cliff Albright, executive director of Black Voters Matter, speaks during a press conference in the Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Voting rights groups plan to fight those measures if they make a comeback, building on the state’s election law passed two years ago, Senate Bill 202. That law confined drop boxes inside early voting locations and allowed any Georgians to contest the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters.

“It wasn’t enough that they tried to limit drop boxes. Now they want to completely eliminate them,” Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said during a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday. “It wasn’t enough that they tried to make it easier two years ago to file challenges against Black Voters, now they want to lower the threshold even more for these random, frivolous challenges.”

Another elections bill would have allowed Georgians to inspect paper ballots after elections, but it didn’t receive a vote in the full House after narrowly passing in a committee vote.

The people most responsible for running elections — county election directors — wanted lawmakers to take action to curtail runoffs.

The state’s organization for election officials, the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Election Officials, supported legislation to eliminate runoffs, Bartow County Elections Director Joseph Kirk said.

“The 2022 runoff pushed us to the brink,” Kirk told a House committee. “I’ve lost employees because of the runoff. We’re suffering as a state.”

Other ideas for eliminating runoffs also went nowhere, such as creating a system called ranked-choice voting, in which voters’ second-choice candidates would be considered.

Runoffs cost taxpayers across Georgia an estimated $75 million in 2020, according to a study by Kennesaw State University professors. Metro Atlanta’s four core counties estimated that last year’s U.S. Senate runoff cost them a combined $10 million or more.

Several legislators have said they prefer sticking with Georgia’s current system that requires runoffs.

“I like the runoff system we have in place because we choose the best candidate based on the majority of voters deciding who they want to represent them,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, a Republican from Dahlonega. “I know there aren’t many states left that do that, but I think that’s important that we preserve that until someone can compel us to change it.”

For now, any potential changes to runoffs will have to wait until next year. The Senate could create a study committee on runoffs, said Williams, who represents the Milledgeville area.

“There certainly seems to be a lot of interest in eliminating runoffs but a lot of differences in opinion on how we do that,” said House Governmental Affairs Chairman John LaHood, a Republican from Valdosta.

About the Author