I was reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last Wednesday night when I came upon the realization that there will be two different runoff elections within the next two months. More accurately, I was reading Jim Galloway’s “Ahead of Georgia’s Sixth District contest, a May 16 test vote,” which alerted me to the fact this was happening. Having spent time working for the Representative from Alaska, I came to like the fact that there were no runoff elections in that state. I wrongly believed until this week that North Carolina didn’t have runoffs, either, because I didn’t see one in the two years I lived there as the requirement to trigger one is that no candidate reaches a 40 percent threshold in a general, primary, or special election. (They used to require candidates to reach a majority, but changed the law in 1989.)
Here, however, we have runoffs all. the. time. Why do we do this to ourselves?
Before I go any further with this, I want to emphatically say while an article about the current races for state senate district 32 and congressional district 6 prompted me to look into the cost and turnout of Georgia runoff elections, this post is not intended to be for or against any particular candidate in those two races, nor am I advocating changing the rules midstream. Rather, I hope to start a conversation about the reasoning behind why our elections process is the way it is and whether or not we should look at making changes for future elections.
Runoff elections were established in southern states around the turn of the 20th Century as a way for Democratic Party bosses to control gubernatorial primaries. In Georgia, they first appeared in 1917. The typical reasoning given by those who instituted primary runoffs was to elect candidates with the broadest base of support. Sometimes, particularly before the 1960s as primary runoffs were the elections that decided the race for governor, they could see higher turnout than the general primary, giving legitimacy to the assertion that these candidates had the support of a majority of voters. Trey Hood, a professor at the University of Georgia’s Department of Political Science, wrote an article for the Athens Banner-Herald in 2014 giving a brief history and detailing myths about primaries, and Charles Bullock, the Richard B. Russell Professor in UGA’s Department of Political Science, wrote a book on the topic in 1992 entitled Runoff Elections in the United States, if you’re interested in learning more.
Today, eleven states currently have primary runoffs. They are almost exclusively southern and western states, with the exception of Vermont, which only has runoffs in the case of a tie. A few southern states have called it quits with them, however. Virginia stopped holding primary runoffs in 1969. Florida suspended its primary runoff rule for 2002 and 2004, then eliminated it in 2006. Kentucky had primary runoffs until they repealed the law that required them in 2008, mainly for financial reasons. According to Daviess County Clerk David Osborne, elections were costing about $1,500 per precinct in Kentucky in 2008 — nearly a decade ago — which was enough for state legislators to put an end to the practice of runoffs.
In Georgia, Richmond County Board of Elections Director Lynn Bailey estimated in 2014 that an election cost roughly between $100,000 and $110,000 to administer, and that didn’t include advance voting. Richmond County has 44 precincts, so the cost was between $2,272 and $2,500 per precinct two years ago. Each advance voting location added an additional $1,000 to the cost, so that would need to be factored in when estimating how much folks in Fulton, Cobb, and DeKalb Counties are going to pay for the current elections for state senate and Congress, not accounting for inflation.
Research by Stephen G. Wright of the University of Rochester found that primary runoffs saw a drop in participation 77 percent of the time when studying statewide Democratic runoffs in the South between the years of 1956 to 1984. Looking at the Secretary of State’s website, I found a steady drop off in participation between primaries and special elections and their runoffs within the last two decades. A different political study by Roy Pierce found that half of primary voters who chose candidates other than the two advancing to runoffs abstained from voting in the runoff because they either felt no candidate left suited them or that the election’s outcome was predetermined. Dr. Bullock’s research (from the aforementioned book) indicates that the “front runners” of primaries win their runoffs 70 percent of the time, so Dr. Pierce’s abstaining voters could be on to something. When I looked at elections and their runoffs in Georgia between 2012 and the present, the “front runner” coming out of the first election won the runoff 74 percent of the time (59 same results versus 21 changed results).
As to the reasoning for creating runoffs — that the candidate elected would have the broadest base of support — it seemed worth looking into whether that’s the case in current times. Would the vote total for the winning candidate in a runoff increase from the vote total of the original primary when I looked at Georgia elections between 2012 and the present? In 53 percent of cases, the “front runner” in the primary or special election had a higher vote total than the winner of the runoff (42 totals in the runoff were less versus 38 that were greater), even when there were more than three candidates in the original race. This somewhat negates the idea that the candidates winning runoffs have a greater number of supporters. Rather, I’d suggest that the candidates winning runoffs are more likely to have a higher number of motivated voters supporting their candidacy, particularly since runoff participation can dip below 7 percent of registered voters.
Turnout for the special election last month was 44 percent. Clearly, 2017 is an unusual election with the congressional race receiving national attention — and it began as a “jungle primary” (or “top-two primary”), with candidates of all parties participating in the same primary, atypical of our regular elections. The outcome of the first round has given us a runoff that simulates a normal general election with one candidate from each major party, which may be the catalyst for less motivated voters to participate on June 20. On the other hand, the state senate seat will probably not attract the notice of the same number of voters, so the May 16 election should be another low turnout affair, even though it also began with a jungle primary.
This begs a question separate of the one posed so far: Why aren’t the two scheduled runoffs on the same day?
Back in 2013, the Department of Justice required that the state of Georgia allow more time for federal races to comply with the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which extended those races from three weeks to nine weeks. For some reason, Georgia hasn’t chosen to extend state races as long, but now that seems wasteful. The counties involved in both races for Congress and state senate could have printed one set of ballots, run the voting machines once, hired the poll workers one time, etc., but instead will have to pay for three races within a three month period.
We have eleven days set aside in 2017 for voting. Not all of these may be necessary, but six of them are for runoff elections. We actually held nine elections in Georgia in 2016, three of which were for runoffs. In previous years, runoffs accounted for between a fourth and a third of elections held. This is expensive, and it’s not doing what primaries have long claimed to do. In recent articles, Dr. Bullock has called the system of runoffs “ingrained,” suggesting that we still have them because Georgia and other southern states are resistant to change. Maybe so, but if you know me well, you know that my least favorite phrase in the English language is “we’ve always done it this way.” Tradition, when it no longer makes sense, needs to be put aside. We’re not increasing voter participation with runoffs, and three-fourths of the time since 2012, we’re not even changing the outcome, yet we’re spending millions of taxpayer dollars to do it (which is totally separate from the campaign donations that we always hear so much about). It’s time to have a review of our process and perhaps time to go the way of a few other southern states who have left runoffs in the past.