November 18, 2022 7:00am

Time to ditch Georgia's runoff system?

Half of Power Poll respondents think so. They also think Warnock will win.

Photo of Steve Fennessy
Atlanta, GA Correspondent
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Two years ago at this time, with a runoff election approaching to determine not one but both of Georgia's U.S. Senate seats, the direction of the country hung in the balance. Would voters give Democrats control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate? Or would Georgia hand President Biden a divided Congress? Not since Florida was counting hanging chads in the 2000 Bush/Gore election did the results from just one state have such national implications. As it turned out, Democrats prevailed, when Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won. But by the time all the votes had been counted in the runoff, it turned out that a half-million voters who'd cast ballots in the general election didn't get around to doing the same in the runoff. Why the dropoff, when so much was at stake? Why did turnout drop by 10 percent between the general election and the runoff? Every voter who stayed home has his reasons, but here's an undeniable one: Voter fatigue. Since the 1960s, Georgia has made a big ask of voters: If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the total vote in a general election, the top two finishers have to square off against each other in another election, called a runoff. And this year, that means it's back to the polls for Georgia voters, who must decide whether Warnock deserves another term or if Republican Herschel Walker should be our next Senator.

Why do we do it this way? Thank (or blame) Denmark Groover, a racist Georgia lawmaker who in the early 1960s muscled the idea into law as a way to reduce the chances of a Black candidate winning office. The fear, apparently, was that if there were multiple white candidates, the white votes would be diluted, and the Black candidate would prevail. Having a runoff would narrow the field to two candidates, one of whom would surely be white, around whom white voters would rally. Can you imagine what Groover would think if he was around today, when both candidates in our Senate runoff, Warnock and Walker, are Black? We asked Power Poll respondents this month for their views on Georgia's peculiar runoff system, which is shared only by Louisiana. (Other states also have runoffs, but only in primary elections.)

Just over half of our respondents (75, to be precise) believe the system is antiquated and should be consigned to history's trash heap. Let the candidate with the plurality of votes during the general election be the winner, they agree. But a not insignificant percentage (37 percent, to be exact, representing 54 respondents) are content with the runoff system as it is, agreeing with the statement that it forces the two finalists to broaden their appeal to as many voters as possible. While some voting rights activists argue that the runoff system is still unfair to minority voters, it's safe to say runoffs aren't going anywhere anytime soon. However, support is growing to adopt what's called "ranked choice" voting, in which voters rank their preferred candidates on one ballot. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she is the winner. If no candidate meets that threshold, the last-place finisher is eliminated and their ballots are tallied again, with votes now going to the voter's second-place pick. The process continues until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the ballots cast. Advocates say the system is cheaper than a runoff, but detractors say the multiple counts would slow down results. Then again, it would probably be complete a lot sooner than our current runoff date, which now takes place four weeks after the general election.

As it stands, we'll be heading back to the polls on Dec. 6. And if Power Poll respondents are any indication, turnout will be impressive. A whopping 96 percent of respondents said that not only did they vote in the general election, but they plan to come out for the runoff, too. (Early voting must begin no later than next Monday, Nov. 28, by the way.)

Finally, in the crystal ball category, we asked for predictions on the winner. On Nov. 12, Democrats retained control of the U.S. Senate when Catherine Cortez Masto squeaked out a victory in Nevada against Adam Laxalt. So while the balance of power is no longer hanging in the balance, Democrats are still eager to pad their narrow majority in the chamber, especially when incumbents Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema so often enjoy playing spoiler. (Right now, 50 votes for Democrats constitutes a majority, since Vice-President Kamala Harris is the tiebreaker.) But is that enough to bring out the Democrats? Power Poll respondents think so; two out of three think Warnock will win another term. Only 17 percent believe Walker will prevail.

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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