Georgia voters could save millions in an instant (runoff)

Carlo Macomber
Research Assistant
Unite America

Topline: Georgia taxpayers  are once again on the hook for  a U.S. Senate runoff election. Administering the 2020 runoffs cost an estimated $75 million in public funds. Runoffs also lead to decreased turnout: 2020 runoff turnout was about 10% lower than that of the general election. To save time and money while maintaining high voter participation, Georgia should modernize its election system by moving on from old-fashioned two-round runoffs and implementing instant-runoff voting, which ensures the winner receives majority support and voters make only one trip to the polls.

On Tuesday, Georgia voters will return to the polls for the state’s U.S. Senate runoff election, which will determine if Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) or Herschel Walker (R) will represent the state for the next six years. Georgia law requires candidates to receive a majority of the vote to be elected, and Warnock and Walker received just 49.4% and 48.5%, respectively (with Libertarian Chase Oliver earning 2.1%), in the November general election.

As a result, Georgia voters are being asked to vote in a third election this year (the primary, general, and a runoff). In fact, Georgians who live in one of the many districts that held primary runoffs this past summer are tasked with voting for a fourth time, while residents of State House District 45, which held a special election and special election runoff back in the spring, may be headed to the polls for a sixth time in 2022. 

It’s quite simply a lot to ask even the most committed voters to turn out for a third or fourth time in a single year, especially during the busy holiday season. It’s even more to ask overworked and under appreciated election workers to administer another election so soon after a busy general election.

Georgia, of course, held two U.S. Senate Runoffs following the November 2020 election, which received substantial national media attention and became nearly the sole focus of our politics as the runoffs would go on to determine partisan control of the Senate. As Georgia’s elections become more competitive, will the state end up holding high-profile runoffs every election cycle? Including the 2018 Secretary of State Runoff, this is the third consecutive even-year election that has required a statewide runoff.

While ensuring that winners receive majority support is a strong virtue, old-fashioned runoff elections present their own problems, and they can easily be improved upon. First, traditional runoff elections are costly to Georgians. According to researchers from Kennesaw State University, administering the 2020 senate runoffs cost an estimated $75 million in public funds statewide, which is nearly five times the combined winnings of the top five highest earners in Jeopardy! history. For 2022’s runoff, early estimates are that it will cost over $10 million in the Atlanta area alone and tens of millions more statewide.

Further, each time Georgia holds a high-profile runoff, the candidates, parties, and out-of-state groups flood the state with advertising in hopes of helping their side win. According to OpenSecrets, the 2022 Georgia Senate race is the most expensive of the election cycle with over $380 million spent through November 29. Ad spending for this year’s runoff alone is expected to reach $125 million. Of course, all money spent during the runoff campaign adds to the nearly $17 billion spent on federal and state elections nationwide in 2022.

Runoff elections also tend to have lower turnout than general elections, meaning that fewer voters participate in the decisive election. The Kennesaw State researchers found that runoffs create voter fatigue and often lead to more negative campaigns, which contribute to lower turnout.

A recent report by FairVote found that turnout has declined from the general election to the runoff in every single one of Georgia’s statewide runoff elections in the last 30 years. The 2020 runoffs, which were of incredible importance, still saw a roughly 10% decline in turnout: this means that nearly 470,000 fewer people voted in the last runoff than in the 2020 general election. In fact, the nearly 2.3 million votes Senator Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff received to win their respective runoffs did not actually represent a majority of the total turnout in the November 2020 general election (nearly five million).

The issues with traditional runoffs are clear, but what if Georgia could continue to have a runoff system but make the necessary changes to avoid these downsides? What if Georgia could hold the runoff … instantly? 

Instant runoff voting (also known as ranked choice voting or RCV) allows for exactly that. Under the system, voters rank candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of the first place votes – as was the case in Georgia – the candidate with the fewest number of first place votes is eliminated. The voters who ranked this candidate first have their votes redistributed to their second choices. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority.

Instant runoff voting eliminates the hefty costs associated with runoff elections and also captures complete voter sentiment without asking them to return to the polls. 

The system is already used in Maine for federal elections and both state and federal primary elections. Alaska also uses it in general elections that follow top-four nonpartisan primaries. Dozens of counties and municipalities throughout the U.S. hold instant runoffs as well. Further, six additional states, including Georgia, already use instant runoff voting to enfranchise military and overseas voters.

Better Ballot Georgia is leading the charge in advocating for Georgia to switch to instant runoff voting for all voters, arguing that repeated runoff elections wear voters down, while instant runoffs can elect more consensus candidates. Bill Bozarth, a board member of the organization, recently told Axios that instant runoff voting is “a way of addressing the great political divide” and “provides a way where we get people running for office who are willing to be more moderate, more compromising, trying to find solutions.” 

To support and learn more about Better Ballot Georgia, you can sign their petition urging the adoption of instant runoff voting statewide and share their ad on statewide airwaves to increase awareness.

Traditional runoffs were once the best way to guarantee majority winners, but thanks to reform already used by over 50 jurisdictions nationwide, we can now improve upon them with instant runoff voting. In 2022, there is no reason for Georgians to endure continual, costly runoff elections during the holiday season. The time is now for Georgia to modernize its elections and save money by adopting instant runoff voting.

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