Nov 28, 2022 - Politics

A proposed way out of Georgia's runoffs

Illustration of gold, silver and bronze check marks.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

As Georgia endures its second high-profile Senate runoff cycle in two years, there's a movement afoot to get rid of them.

Driving the news: A nonpartisan coalition of groups released a new digital ad to push for changes to Georgia's general election runoff system, arguing an instant runoff ballot would avoid costly overtime elections — and the attack ads that come with them.

  • "Imagine being able to enjoy the holidays without being bombarded with negativity," it begins.

Catch up quick: In instant runoffs, a voter ranks candidates in preference order. Then, in the instance that one candidate doesn't receive more than 50% of the vote, secondary preferences would be considered to determine a majority winner — without holding another election.

Why it matters: Advocates argue that changing the system would save taxpayer money and make for a bigger electorate given lower turnout runoffs.

  • They also argue the change could make campaigns less divisive and negative since candidates will be trying to appeal as voters’ second or third choices as well.

Be smart: The proposed "instant runoff" system is similar to states including Maine and much of Utah, but is different from the open primary, ranked-choice system Alaska recently adopted — which saw a Democrat defeat two Republicans earlier this fall.

Zoom in: According to Kennesaw State University research funded by Georgia instant runoff advocates, the 2021 Senate runoffs cost taxpayers an estimated $75 million.

  • Plus, researchers found that turnout "unequivocally" drops during most runoffs, calling into question the theoretical purpose of these overtime elections: that they yield a more democratic decision by a majority of voters.

Yes, and: Bill Bozarth, a board member of a group in the coalition, Better Ballot Georgia, argues ranking candidates is "a way of addressing the great political divide."

  • “It provides a way where we get people running for office who are willing to be more moderate, more compromising, trying to find solutions,” he told Axios.
  • Runoffs skew towards the most “zealous base,” he said.

State of play: Georgia has already implemented a type of instant runoff ballot for the state's military and overseas voters. The bipartisan proposal folded into the 2021 Republican-led election overhaul, which also shortened federal runoffs to four weeks.

  • State Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock) sponsored the original bill.
  • "My idea was to give Georgians a taste of instant runoff voting, to maybe get some education going on this," he told Axios.
  • Carolyn Capelouto, a Georgia voter living abroad, told Axios the process of submitting her ranked-choice ballot this year was "a bit confusing." While she ultimately got her ballots in on time, "it could have been better explained," she said.

The big picture: Other proposals, including allowing cities to opt-in to instant runoffs and implementing instant runoffs for general elections and presidential preference primaries, have stalled so far.

Yes, but: Scot Turner, a former Republican state representative and executive director of Eternal Vigilance Action, a group in the coalition, is hopeful that exhaustion over the Senate runoffs might make lawmakers more open to the idea. Plus, he points out, there’s new leadership in the legislature.

  • The reform, he told Axios, would be "a solution for the pain that we're all feeling."

Between the lines: The issue has bipartisan support, including from State Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Atlanta). She told Axios she hopes both parties will get on board.

  • "It is good government," she said. "It is efficient and promotes healthier debate during elections."

What we’re watching: Better Ballot Georgia is collecting signatures on an online petition.

  • "Enough is enough – instant runoff voting is a faster, cheaper, and better way to run our elections," Daniel Baggerman, the group's president, said in a statement.

The bottom line: Cantrell, who will not be in office next year, said he sometimes felt "in a vacuum" on the issue.

  • "Nobody was passionate about it. But maybe they will be after this runoff. Maybe this will be the thing that will motivate folks from both sides of the aisle to step up and say we’ve got to get rid of these antiquated runoffs."
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