The following article by Matt Germer first appeared on RStreet.org on December 7th, 2023. Founded in 2012, the R Street Institute is the leading think tank engaged in policy research in support of free markets and limited, effective government. They work to bolster American innovation, increase consumer choice and protect individual liberty and believe in smaller, smarter government. Germer is the Associate Director and Elections Fellow of R Street’s Governance Program.
This post looks at how the 2020 and 2022 U.S. Senate elections in Georgia might have turned out if the state had conducted instant runoff elections rather than standard runoffs.
Currently, Georgia election law requires candidates to win a majority of votes in order to be declared the winner. If no candidate earns that majority, the state holds runoff elections between the top two candidates weeks after the first round of balloting.
Georgia’s runoff elections in 2020 and 2022 proved decisive for the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, with Democrats holding the slimmest possible majority in the 117th Congress—relying on the Democratic vice president as a tiebreaker—and a 51-49 majority in the 118th Congress. Yet, if Republicans in Georgia had bucked their party’s recent push against instant runoff elections, it is possible the GOP would have maintained Senate control.
The 2020 and 2022 Quagmires
Both Senate seats were up for grabs in Georgia during the 2020 cycle, and the races were extremely competitive—particularly the one between Republican David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. Though neither won a majority, Perdue garnered more votes than Ossoff (49.7 percent to 47.9 percent). A third-party candidate, Libertarian Shane Hazel, collected the remaining 2.3 percent of the vote. Under Georgia law, Hazel was eliminated while Perdue and Ossoff advanced to the runoff election in January.
Meanwhile, in the other Senate race, a special election saw 20 candidates compete for the seat: six Republicans, eight Democrats and six others. Much like the Perdue-Ossoff race, Republicans outgained Democrats 49.4 percent to 48.4 percent. Due to the expansive field, it was expected that this race would also advance to a runoff in January—and so it did, with Republican Kelly Loeffler facing off against Democrat Raphael Warnock.
The story repeated itself in 2022. Once again, with Senate control hanging in the balance, neither major-party candidate won a majority in the November general election—and weeks later, again with a smaller electorate, the Democratic candidate won the runoff election.
Instant Runoffs Likely Would Have Changed the Outcomes
Rather than requiring voters to show up again for a runoff weeks later, Georgia could have employed an instant runoff using ranked-choice voting (RCV). If they had, Republicans likely would have won each of the elections.
The 2020 Perdue-Ossoff race provides the clearest example. In the November general election, Perdue won 2,462,617 votes; Ossoff won 2,374,519; and Hazel won 115,039. If Georgia had used RCV to conduct an instant runoff election, last-place Hazel would have been eliminated and his ballots reallocated to his supporters’ second choice. For decades, Libertarian voters have preferred Republicans over Democrats in a heads-up race. If a majority of Hazel’s voters had ranked Perdue second, Perdue would have won. In fact, given how close Perdue already was to reaching 50 percent in the general, he only needed 12 percent of Hazel’s voters to rank him above Ossoff. Effectively, instant runoffs using RCV would have guaranteed victory for the Republicans.
The 2022 Walker-Warnock race unfolded similarly, with neither major-party candidate earning a majority and 2 percent of the vote going to the Libertarian. Just as in 2020, had Georgia employed instant runoffs, the Libertarian would have been eliminated and his votes reallocated—likely predominantly to the Republican—and Herschel Walker could have come away with the win.
Due to the huge field of candidates, the 2020 Loeffler-Warnock race is slightly more complicated to predict with an instant runoff. Nevertheless, using the reasonable assumption that Republican voters would have ranked the Republicans above the Democrats, it is likely Republicans would have won the seat. After all, third-party candidates earned 2.5 percent of the vote, and Republicans collectively needed just 0.3 percentage points to win a majority.
Instant Runoffs Also Would Have Been More Representative
Using an instant runoff with RCV would also have resulted in more Georgians participating in the outcome of the race. The 2020 and 2022 general elections involved roughly 500,000 more voters than the runoffs and was therefore more representative of the will of Georgia voters. Instant runoffs using RCV would have given that electorate the power to select the winner.
The decision to conduct separate runoff elections in Georgia in 2020 and 2022 rather than use RCV to conduct instant runoffs cost the GOP key Senate seats and control of the chamber. Far from a scam designed to benefit Democrats, RCV creates more representative outcomes—which, in conservative-leaning states like Georgia, would likely benefit Republicans and improve their chances of winning elections.