tradition in South; Majority rule hearkens back to Democrat
By Duane D.
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
So voters will be going to the polls Tuesday to settle races
that didn't get decided in primary voting Aug. 20.
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
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
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
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
'Instant' runoff coming
With turnouts so low, why even
Bullock said the runoff system is a holdover from a
time when Republicans stood little chance of getting elected in the
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.
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.
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