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News / Politics

Runoffs targeted in latest effort to tweak Georgia elections

By Mark Niesse, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published: January 3, 2023, 8:23am

Another prolonged and contentious election year in Georgia has legislators considering whether to kill off runoffs once and for all.

Georgia’s unusual system of requiring a runoff whenever candidates fall short of a majority could be changed by the Republican-run General Assembly during this year’s legislative session after a third straight runoff win by Democrats last month, when U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Herschel Walker.

No other state requires runoffs after both primary and general elections, and only two other states — Louisiana and Mississippi — call for runoffs after general elections. Most states declare winners who achieve a mere plurality that’s less than 50% of the vote in a multicandidate race.

But some legislators say they see value in keeping Georgia’s runoffs because they force candidates to win a majority and prevent Libertarian Party candidates from hurting the chances of other candidates.

“I sort of like the system we have where it requires 50%,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, a Republican from Dahlonega. “I’m open-minded to hearing other ideas. We don’t really have a clear consensus yet on which direction to go.”

Runoffs routinely cost Georgia taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, an expense that could be avoided if they were eliminated, according to a recent study by researchers at Kennesaw State University. Runoffs also usually have lower turnout than initial elections.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wants legislators to pass a bill to prevent future general election runoffs, but he didn’t specify what he wanted instead.

One option includes awarding victory to whichever candidates lead after the general election, regardless of whether they achieve a majority.

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Another possibility would institute a system called instant-runoff voting, in which voters pick their second-choice candidates upfront in the general election. Then, if a voter’s first choice doesn’t finish among the top two candidates, the vote for the second-choice candidate would be counted, avoiding the need for another election.

An idea preferred by some Democrats would keep runoffs, but not so soon after the general election. One Democratic-sponsored bill would require more time before runoffs and a longer early voting period.

Georgia’s voting law passed in 2021 scheduled runoffs four weeks after the first election instead of the nine under previous rules, leaving just one week of statewide early voting and resulting in voting lines that lasted two hours in some areas.

“It’s hard not to be suspicious of the timing” of proposed changes to runoffs after recent wins by Democrats, said state Sen. Sonya Halpern, a Democrat from Atlanta. “It all depends on what the solution would be. I don’t want to be too quick to say, ‘Get rid of them.’”

Recent election years have led to major changes in Georgia voting laws, and this year may not be the exception.

After the 2018 election, the General Assembly passed a bill to replace the state’s electronic voting machines with a system that prints a paper ballot.

Then after 2020, Senate Bill 202 restricted ballot drop box availability, required several extra steps to request an absentee ballot, allowed state takeovers of county election boards and shortened the runoff period.

“Every single time that something comes up as an election reform, Georgians have to collectively hold their breath,” said Stephanie Jackson Ali, policy director for the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a voting rights organization. “Georgians deserve to turn out once and be done, but we’re always cautious to see what the actual plan is.”

Republicans have dominated most runoffs in Georgia since 1992, when Paul Coverdell upset Democratic incumbent Wyche Fowler for a seat in the U.S. Senate. But the GOP’s string of victories came to an end in the 2020 election cycle, when Warnock defeated U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Jon Ossoff won a race against U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

Black candidates have said for decades that Georgia’s runoff system is discriminatory.

When the General Assembly was run by rural Democrats, they passed a law in 1964 requiring runoffs for almost all races. The move prevented Black voters from voting as a bloc to elect candidates with a plurality of votes.

After Fowler’s loss, Democrats changed state law again to require only 45% of the vote to avoid a runoff. When Republicans took control of the General Assembly, they reinstated the 50% threshold in 2005.

State. Rep. Alan Powell, a Republican from Hartwell, said he prefers keeping runoffs for races when no candidate wins a majority to prevent third-party candidates from altering election outcomes.

“I still believe that you need to have 50% plus one. That eliminates any political gimmicks if somebody might wish to get a third person in a race that breaks down the votes so you could have someone take public office with 30% of the votes,” Powell said.

House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Democrat from Macon, said he’ll be cautious about proposals to change laws governing runoffs.

“It’s never altruistic in a political space. At least, that’s what I see their side doing most of the time,” Beverly said. “The number then becomes very important. Is it 45%? Is it 48%? If the number were under 50%, Perdue would be a senator right now.”

Perdue received 49.8% of the vote in the 2020 general election before Ossoff won the runoff with a 50.6% majority. In this year’s runoff, Warnock received the most votes in both the general election and the runoff.

It’s unclear what proposal for runoffs will survive, and neither party’s leaders have coalesced around a particular plan.

Lawmakers in both parties said they will evaluate bills to alter runoffs in the weeks after this year’s legislative session begins Jan. 9.

Results of recent Georgia runoffs

  • 2022 U.S. Senate

Raphael Warnock (D), 51.4%; Herschel Walker (R), 48.6%

  • 2020/2021 U.S. Senate

Raphael Warnock (D), 51%; Kelly Loeffler (R), 49%

Jon Ossoff (D), 50.6%; David Perdue (R), 49.4%

  • 2018 secretary of state

Brad Raffensperger (R), 51.9%; John Barrow (D), 48.1%

  • 2018 Public Service Commission District 3

Chuck Eaton (R), 51.7%; Lindy Miller (D), 48.3%