Georgia’s Runoff Problem and IRV’s Role as a Solution
Kennesaw State University recently published a research paper that studied the impact of runoffs in Georgia. (in full disclosure, the organization I work for funded the research.) That study set out to answer three questions:
- How much do runoff elections cost?
- Is there a drop off in turn out, and if so, how big?
- Do runoff election campaigns get more negative?
Regardless of the reason runoffs were created, Denmark Groover is unavailable for comment, they promise that the winner will have majoritarian support. That promise is supposed to lead to increased unity because the perception that the winner got over 50% of the vote. But let me ask you, do you feel like we are more unified after three straight Senatorial runoffs?
Further, while two other states have runoffs for general elections on the books, Georgia is the only state to have actually used them this way. We are on an island and we are paying a steep price in a lot of different ways for that honor.
In Georgia, our local governments are responsible for funding and running our elections. Every time there is a runoff, they are forced to cough up the dough, and in the KSU study, they estimated the cost to these locals at $75 Million. That money comes out of the budget that funds your Sheriff’s Office, parks and recreation, streets, etc. Every time we have a runoff, it takes money away from training a deputy or equipping them, a pothole goes unfilled, or a playground goes unbuilt. And maybe that price would be worth it if we actually delivered on the promise of a majoritarian winner.
But it doesn’t.
The study finds that turnout always drops. Sometimes only about 40% of the electorate returns for the runoff. Sometimes a candidate will receive more votes in the first election than the total number of votes cast in the runoff. In essence, we are electing candidates by plurality via delay, and paying a ton of money to do so.
With three state Republican losses in the U.S. Senate, Kelly Loeffler’s organization, Greater Georgia, has been studying the drop off problem and how it impacts the results of elections. Greater Georgia was able to identify over 339,000 voters who did not participate in her own runoff in 2020 (About 220,000 of them were Republicans). Greater Georgia now refers to these voters as, “disenfranchised.” And that description is completely accurate because their voice was silenced by the runoff system.
But the costs of runoffs don’t end there because they force our election season into an extended amount of time, into the holidays in fact, when we continue to be bombarded with negative ads. And I know you just loved watching campaign ads during the SEC Championship game. The KSU study created a novel methodology for measuring this, and ultimately found that the negativity levels of runoff campaigns get amped up. When we all have to watch ads during live sporting events about how awful a human being someone is it contributes to our divide.
So the runoff policy simply does not deliver on any of its promises.
We could, and should, move to a better system. A tweak of the runoff system that would cost less dollars, end elections faster, end the negativity (especially during the holidays), and actually produce a majoritarian winner: Instant Runoff Voting or IRV.
IRV would allow the voter to participate in the runoff system by only going to the ballot booth once. Voters would rank the candidates in the order of their preference and so long as that candidate was in the top vote getters, their vote would remain with that candidate. Only if their first choice did not make the next round would their vote go to their second choice, which is what our current runoff system asks them to do on a second visit to the polls. This is not a massive overhaul of the system, but an adjustment that lowers cost, maximizes voter participation, and mercifully shortens election season.
The good news is that we are already using it in a very limited way in Georgia as SB 202 included it as an option for our military and overseas voters. So far the feedback on usage of these ballots has been positive. So the reform here is not a foreign concept and is something we are already doing.
So what is the catch? Well, if you are thinking about Alaska right about now, let me put your mind at ease because the system they use there is significantly different than this tweak to our own. In Alaska they use a system known as Final Four (sometimes called Final Five Voting) that creates a jungle primary where all candidates from all parties run against each other and the the top four vote getters advance to the General Election. This forces candidates from the same party to run not only against each other, but also against candidates from the other parties at the same time.
Instant runoffs can be used in primaries, like the Virginia GOP did to nominate Glenn Youngkin, or general elections. Parties in Georgia would still be free to nominate their own candidates using the same requirements as today and does not require the adoption of the Alaska Model. Therefore any comparisons to Alaska would be unfair, and potentially misleading. But even in Alaska, Republicans won a majority in both chambers of their legislature, a US Senate Seat, and the Governor’s Mansion.
Our policy would be more in line with the Virginia Republican Party and Utah where cities can opt in to using the system to lower their costs.
And in these places, polls have shown that voters that use IRV like it. They think it is easy to understand, and they appreciate the simplicity of only needing to cast a single ballot. And unlike the current runoff system, it costs less and makes voting simpler.
IRV is not a policy that seeks to alter outcomes, but it does resolve the big three problems presented in the KSU paper. And it allows us the ability to go back to a shortened election cycle that currently feels like it is without end. The General Assembly would be doing good work if they chose to expand on it in 2023.
4 Replies to “Georgia’s Runoff Problem and IRV’s Role as a Solution”
yeah the alaska system has problems. I guess for primaries it might be ok and maybe normal general elections as well, but i still worry about peoples emotions in the voting booth for candidate ranking…sometimes primaries can be heated and in the booth on election day your ranking may not reflect what you would actually decide once your first choice is out and you have time to consider and hear the other choices out during the runoff period…
This is a valid concern if campaigns continue to run the way they are today, however the data show that campaigns evolve and become less hostile when IRV is used. A candidate has to be concerned more with differentiating themselves on policy and qualifications rather than risk alienating potential supporters as a second choice. Tearing down the person would have to go away as a campaign tactic, serving as an antidote to heightened emotions.
It’s been a while, like decades, since I’ve heard the name Denmark Groover. Unfortunately he was not alone with his segregationist sentiments, but while he may have introduced the legislation to address his patch, statewide general elections without a majority still went to the legislature. This is how we ended up with the populist segregationist Lester Maddox as governor later in 1966 over the Republican Bo Callaway who won a plurality in the general. The first chance the Republicans had for that office since Reconstruction and of course decades before Sonny.
This is my recollection of why most everyone was in favor of going to a runoff system for statewide elections after the fiasco of Lester. Even African Americans that didn’t write in Ellis Arnall voted Republican in that one. Jason’s statement about Hershel being the worst candidate in his lifetime is superseded in my much longer one by Maddox, and he actually was put in office without even winning a plurality. And then even before my time there was the great 3 governors election…
I mention this history because the current system at least gives us a majority winner from motivated voters anyway. That being said I’m more in favor of a top two non-partisan primary usually derisively called a jungle primary. As a long time partisan who now identifies as an anti-partisan I fail to understand why the taxpayers even pay for the current partisan primary system even if they are open. There are many races that I’m hard pressed to pick a 1st choice in, much less a second. If ranked choice voting had been in place with this most recent election I’m pretty sure we would now have Jason’s first and my second worst candidate as a US Senator. I would be interested in hearing why Scot prefers ranked choice over the top two system besides the obvious single trip to the polls. In Presidential election years aren’t we are still going to be dealing with partisan primaries?
There are a whole host of reasons I support IRV over current system. Among them are the cost in tax dollars to administer a runoff, the massive drop off in turnout (we end up with plurality results anyway), the expense of running extended campaigns for candidates, the extended campaign season could be considerably shorter (giving us results much faster), and the improvement of political discourse that comes with the system as candidates have to focus on issues rather tear each other down.
That list is not exhaustive, but I have spent 5 years studying the system and it is superior to the current system in every way I can think of.
I was elected in a runoff and missed a full month of my first legislative session as a result. In the first round of voting, I received about 6 fewer votes than the total number of people who voted in the second round. In my very first conversation I ever had with David Ralston he asked what I wanted to work on, and although I had a whole policy agenda in my head the first thing I said was getting rid of runoffs.
“You will likely find many allies here,” he said.