The nine-week slog known as Georgia’s primary runoff is almost over.
By the time the votes are counted, runoffs in four statewide campaigns — for governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state among Republicans, and for school superintendent among Democrats — will have lasted nearly as long as schoolchildren’s summer vacation. If qualifying week is the official start to the election, these contests are like a baseball game that wasn’t settled until the 17th inning.
And only the die-hards stick around for the 17th inning.
Unlike a baseball game, though, leaving the stadium or changing the channel isn’t an option. The television, the radio, local news websites, neighbors’ front yards, your own mailbox — just about anywhere you turn, these runoffs seek you out. That’s fueled by the record $33 million that’s been raised in the governor’s election alone, the lion’s share by Republicans before they’ve even determined their nominee.
If you’re wondering who benefits from these overly long runoffs, it’s not the voters. It’s not even the candidates, unless you count those who avoided runoffs (consider Democrat Stacey Abrams, refilling her campaign coffers, while Republicans Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp savage each other’s character and record).
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Arkansas, which like Georgia held its primary on May 22, staged its runoff on June 19, more than a month before ours. Our neighbors in South Carolina didn’t hold their primary until June 12, yet their runoff preceded ours by four weeks.
Our lengthy runoffs date to a 2012 federal court order. It requires Georgia to make all ballots, including those for runoffs, available at least 45 days before an election so that overseas voters, including military personnel and their families stationed abroad, can participate.
But Georgia is hardly the only state with citizens living on foreign soil. How do states like Arkansas and South Carolina get away with four- and even two-week runoffs?
The answer is Instant Runoff Voting, which allows voters to rank all the candidates in each race. If a race ends with no one earning a majority, the last-place candidate is dropped and his votes are allocated to the other candidates according to their rank on those ballots. If that doesn’t produce a majority, the process is repeated, dropping one candidate at a time, until there’s a winner. Arkansas and South Carolina use Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV, with the ballots they send to overseas voters. So do Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Illinois.
It’s worth trying on that basis in Georgia and, if no issues crop up, perhaps expanding afterward. Remember what I said about only the die-hards sticking around for the 17th inning? There traditionally is a large drop-off in turnout between primaries (or general elections) and runoffs. That raises questions about whether a majority in the lower-turnout runoff is really more indicative of the electorate’s will than a plurality in a higher-turnout primary.
For example: In 2016, a state House candidate in Ringgold led a three-person primary with 2,010 votes, but he had to go to a runoff because that was good for only 48.3 percent. Turnout was so low in the second round that the original second-place finisher won the seat with just 1,825 voters.
It’s as if that 17-inning baseball game was declared over because one team made it to third base.
Georgia’s troops and their families, as well as other citizens overseas, certainly deserve to have their votes counted in our elections. But we can make that easier on them and the rest of us by adapting our laws and shortening these seemingly endless elections.
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Contact him at email@example.com.