Senate runoff fatigue renews debate over election process in Georgia

Tuesday’s Senate runoff has sparked fresh debate over Georgia’s runoff process. Some advocates and candidates are making the case for moving to ranked choice voting. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)

After spending one year in the U.S. Senate, appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler successfully cleared a crowded nonpartisan jungle primary in her quest to be elected to the seat.

But when the Republican incumbent went head to head with Democrat Raphael Warnock after no candidate reached Georgia’s required 50% threshold in the first round of voting, she came up short in the high-stakes January 2021 runoff and lost the seat.

The result may have been different if Georgia used instant runoffs, or ranked choice voting, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

In an instant runoff, winner-takes-all election, the candidate with the most votes does not necessarily win. Rather, the outcomes are determined by factoring the rankings of the voters until the winner has acquired 50% of the votes.

Tuesday’s Senate runoff, which Warnock won over Republican Herschel Walker, has sparked fresh debate over whether such an alternative to Georgia’s runoff system should be considered. Some advocates and candidates – including Warnock – are making the case for it.

But an instant runoff likely would have favored Loeffler, according to Bullock. She would have likely won the crowded jungle primary over Warnock under an instant runoff system because she would have been popular with supporters of Republican runner-up former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, he said.

In ranked choice elections, there are options to limit the number of candidates a voter can choose, and Bullock said state legislators could test the system with municipal elections before deciding to expand it.

“The simplest to implement and educate voters about would be ranked choice voting so that when you get your ballot, rather than just putting a checkmark by the candidate you want, you would put in a number,” Bullock said.

“Certainly in some cities you pretty much know this person really leans Republican and someone leans Democratic, but you wouldn’t have potentially the partisan battles that you might have in elections for Congress or state Legislature,” he said.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who is a Republican, said he supports legislators looking into new ways to run elections including the instant runoff.

“I think at the end of the day, that’s something that we would encourage (legislators) to take a look at,” Raffensperger said this week. “But there’s lots of options, lots of different ideas and I think it goes through the committee process.”

At a press conference last month, Warnock advocated for an instant runoff while discussing his legal fight with the state over a Saturday early voting day ahead of the Dec. 6 runoff against Walker. Since the Republican election law overhaul in 2021 cut the runoff window in half, which in turn meant fewer early voting days in a runoff, Warnock said a new system would work better.

“This should be a call to move us to a ranked choice voting system where every Georgian can avail itself of an instant runoff system,” he said.

The ranked choice system is also being promoted by a group called Better Ballot Georgia that says the change will reduce the money spent running costly statewide Senate runoffs, provide a more accurate way to determine which candidate is most popular and spare Georgians of negative attack ads during the holidays.

In the 2022 election cycle, Warnock and Walker ran the most expensive campaigns in the country, with over $400 million being spent, according to Taxpayers also felt the burden as local elections offices spent millions more on the runoff.

Lawrenceville resident Lee Freeman, who voted for Warnock on Tuesday, said she would fully support ranked choice voting here. Not only would it end Georgia’s prolonged runoffs, but she argued it would expand opportunities for candidates hailing from other political parties.

“Honestly, I really don’t like the fact that we have just two main political parties. Everyone else should have a fair shot,” she said.

The supporters of instant runoffs say it’s more likely that candidates will run on their merits rather than on partisanship and personal insults that drag their opponents into the mud.

Cherokee County airline pilot Roy Staines said the bitter runoff between Walker and Warnock just gave more time for the candidates to run smear campaigns.

“Make it about what is right, what the candidate’s running for, not the smear campaigns,” Staines said. “I don’t want to see that Herschel Walker beat his wife. That’s his personal life. I don’t care that Raphael Warnock did something in his personal life. I want to see what they’re doing, what they want to do for the citizens. That’s what I want to see.”

With only two major political parties, Bullock said the chances of a runoff were slim until recently because the support for the factions wasn’t closely balanced. Over the last three election cycles, Georgia’s demographics have shifted, resulting in about a half dozen statewide and congressional runoffs.

From 1917 to 1964, Bullock said that a local democratic executive committee would determine whether a plurality or majority system was used for electing the sheriff, county commissioners, and state legislators, and this would change from election to election.

When Democrats were still in power, state lawmakers changed the law for runoff elections in response to Republican Paul Coverdell’s upset victory in the 1992 U.S. Senate election.

Georgia Recorder reporters Jill Nolin and Ross Williams contributed to this report. 

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.