OPINION: Time to scrap Georgia’s general election runoffs

Covering the overtime drama of a runoff election in Georgia is its own kind of punishment for journalists, like watching Groundhog Day over and over, but with candidate attack ads on repeat.

I can only imagine the same (and more) could be said of what it’s like to be a candidate in a runoff in Georgia. You won! No, you didn’t. You lost! Now raise some more money and try again.

If Georgians drew a single conclusion from watching the process of this year’s Senate runoff election, complete with long lines, lawsuits, and ad wars, it was probably that the entire exercise of staging a second statewide election within weeks of the November general election, if no candidate wins a majority, needs a major overhaul.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Dr. Kerwin Swint, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University, and two colleagues examined the cost of runoff elections in Georgia, both for administrators and for voters.

Their primary finding is that general election runoffs in Georgia don’t have to happen at all. In fact, Swint titled the report of their runoff research, conducted along with his KSU colleagues Benjamin Taylor and Ayla McGinnis, “An Unnecessary Burden.”

“A runoff is both of those things — it’s a burden and it’s unnecessary,” Swint told me this week. “It’s a burden on voters. It’s a burden on the counties. Lord knows that the financial burden, to me, has always been the biggest thing.”

To the professor’s point, his team found that counties paid a combined $75 million to hold the U.S. Senate runoffs in 2021 and likely spent another $80 million this year. My colleague Mark Niesse reported that Fulton County put aside $7 million for this year alone to conduct the December runoff between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker. That’s money that could have been spent on Fulton County schools, police pay raises, county parks, or libraries — all to get the same result as November.

The lines for early voting in the December runoff, too, were a signal that something in the way Georgia decides statewide winners needs to change. At first, those snaking columns of voters and single-day turnout records were celebrated on social media as a sign of enthusiasm.

But really they were a sign of Senate Bill 202, which shortened the general election runoff period from nine weeks to four, while also reducing the number of required early voting days from 17 to five. The law also moved ballot drop boxes inside precincts and added requirements for mail-in voting. Easy to vote? Not in the runoff this year.

It’s no surprise now that elections officials are considering changes to the runoff system to avoid a repeat performance.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told the New York Times last week that there are at least three options for changes that lawmakers could consider in the next legislative session.

One would require large counties to open more precincts to accommodate early runoff voting crowds. It turns out that the more than 1.7 million voters who wanted to vote early needed more places to go, so more precincts would be a logical, but more expensive, fix.

The second option would lower the threshold for winning a general election from 50% to 45%, making it easier for candidates to avoid a runoff while also making sure a reasonable proportion of voters support the winner. Raffenspeger’s third policy alternative would replace traditional runoff elections with ranked-choice voting, also known as an “instant runoff.”

Proponents of ranked-choice voting argue that the process reflects the complexity of voters’ preferences, including their second, third, fourth, and fifth choices without having to mobilize the state’s entire voting apparatus to capture it.

It involves voters ranking their choices in order, first through the end.

Overseas voters used rank choice voting this year for the first time in Georgia, but will the entire state both get on board and have confidence in the results of a somewhat complicated new system in the end? I’m skeptical.

A fourth option that Swint offered was not on Raffensperger’s list at all, which would be to eliminate runoffs for general elections altogether. While runoffs are useful to winnow down large primary fields in the summer, Georgia’s qualifying requirements mean that only a Democrat, a Republican, and a Libertarian are likely to ever qualify for general elections in the state.

Letting the winner take all would mean a single trip to the polls for voters in November, while reducing counties’ November burdens. It would also mirror national elections.

It’s no coincidence that it’s all “come down to Georgia” in the last two Senate election cycles, since Georgia is one of only two states with November runoffs. Mississippi also recently discussed the possibility of using runoffs but hasn’t done that so far.

The most compelling reason to scrap general election runoffs in Georgia is the fact that turnout for runoff elections is always lower than the turnout for general elections in November. Even this year’s record-setting Senate runoff turnout was 90% of November’s, results. In one congressional runoff in 2012, runoff dropped more than 75%, Swint’s research found.

There’s no way to know which party would benefit in the long term by changing the runoff rules now. But the question shouldn’t be about the candidates, it should be about the voters.

Swint’s original reason for doing this research ended up being the conclusion, too. “Why do it this way when no one else does? Why put ourselves through this?”

On the question of changing runoffs in Georgia for the future, I cast my vote with the professor.

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