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Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Election runoffs tradition in South; Majority rule hearkens back to Democrat days
By Duane D. Stanford
September 9, 2002

It's a Southern thing.

In most of the country, once a primary or general election is held, it's over. Whichever candidate gets the most votes is the winner, no matter how many candidates are in the race.

But in Georgia, a candidate must get more than 50 percent of the vote --- a majority --- to win a primary election. If no one does, the top two vote-getters face off in a runoff, trying to win the majority that eluded them the first time.

So voters will be going to the polls Tuesday to settle races that didn't get decided in primary voting Aug. 20.

Native Georgians know about runoffs. They've been a part of the state's electoral landscape since 1917. But it can be puzzling for the ever-growing ranks of newcomers.

Georgia is one of nine states that provide for runoff elections in nearly every race, from Congress down to city council. All are in the South, stretching from Texas to North Carolina. The rest of the country generally sees runoffs only in some big city races.

Over the years, the merits of the runoff system have been debated in state legislatures and challenged in the courts. Some say the system protects the majority from minority rule. Others have argued that the system is antiquated and works to shut out minority representation. And runoffs aren't cheap. Gwinnett County will spend $250,000 to stage Tuesday's runoff, said Elections Supervisor Lynn Ledford.

Turnout drops by half

Somehow, the system has survived the fights and its critics. Still, few voters bother to show up.

In both 1998 and 1996, turnout dropped by about half between the primary and the runoff in Georgia, going from 25 percent to 13 percent in 1998 and from 33 percent to 17 percent in 1996. There were no statewide runoffs in 2000.

State elections officials, following their usual practice, are making no turnout predictions for Tuesday's vote because runoff vote totals vary widely from year to year.

Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia and co-author of "Runoff Elections in the United States," said runoffs generally have less to offer voters, so many just aren't interested.

In some metro counties Tuesday, there will be little more to attract voters to the polls than GOP runoffs for secretary of state and lieutenant governor and a Democratic runoff for state school superintendent, Bullock said. The candidates are little known, have too little money for television commercials and are seeking offices people know little about.

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, points out another problem: "Some people who support candidates who don't make the runoff just drop off the face of the Earth."

'Instant' runoff coming

With turnouts so low, why even have runoffs?

Bullock said the runoff system is a holdover from a time when Republicans stood little chance of getting elected in the South.

In the decades after the post-Civil War Reconstruction of the South, Democrats so thoroughly controlled politics that most elections were decided in the primary, Bullock said.

Reformers within the Democratic Party devised runoffs as a way to keep factionalists from controlling the outcome of their elections, Bullock said. Without runoffs, the top vote-getter in a multiple-candidate race might capture the election with as little as 25 percent of the vote. That meant a candidate with a narrow message could conceivably rule the majority.

During the height of Democratic power in the South, runoffs often drew more voters than did the primary, Bullock said. But when Republicans began gaining ground in Georgia in the 1960s, general elections took on a new role and began to overshadow the primary runoff.

"You've got a majority, but a majority of a much smaller population," he said of today's dismal runoff turnouts.

Several legal challenges to the runoff system have failed in the courts.

Minority candidates have argued over the years that the runoff system allows whites to gang up on minority candidates who place first in primary competition. While not entirely dismissing such claims, judges have generally agreed that candidates should be required to win a majority vote.

Rob Richie, executive director of the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy, advocates as an alternative the so-called "instant" runoff. San Francisco voters will begin using the system next year. Voters in the primary there will rank the candidates, instead of picking just one. If no one grabs the required majority, the second and third choices will be used to conduct a runoff right away, sparing voters another trip to the polls.

Richie said the system promotes higher turnout. Advocates also say it saves people from wasting their votes.

"The more times you ask people to go to the polls," Richie said, "the less people will go to the polls for any one election."

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