Around lunchtime Tuesday, I checked a couple of voting precincts to see whether turnout in the runoff election was as bad as I feared. It was worse.
By 1 p.m. — halfway through the 12-hour voting period — the precinct at a Sandy Springs church had seen 62 voters. Down the road at North Springs High School, there had been a paltry 16, or three for each of the five poll workers present.
Yes, the weather was awful Tuesday. Thinking that people simply might not want to get out in the rain, I stopped by a Target store. It took 20 minutes for as many people to enter the store as had voted at those two nearby precincts in six hours.
Their vote totals roughly doubled over the second half of the day. But in the end, just one of every 15 people who voted at those two precincts just four weeks earlier bothered to show up at the polls.
A similar story played out elsewhere in Fulton County — where a couple of precincts reported just one voter, and one in downtown Atlanta actually had zero — and across the state. Several entire counties posted turnout of less than 3 percent. Early voting totals did not pad the stats.
Overall, turnout across the state was just over 5 percent, less than 265,000 voters out of the 5 million who are registered. This, for a seat on the Supreme Court where the winner helps to decide matters that are truly life-or-death.
The cost statewide of holding these poorly attended runoff elections is unknown. Counties compile their own budget information, and the state does not collect it. But it is significant, particularly for small and medium-size counties.
Take Hall County, the state’s new wellspring of political power thanks to native sons Nathan Deal and Casey Cagle. Hall and the other counties in Georgia’s 9th Congressional District have staged three runoff elections this year: for a special election to replace Deal in Congress, for the primaries and for the general election.
Charlotte Sosebee, Hall County’s interim director of elections, says a runoff election costs the county approximately $45,000. That means runoffs consumed about 13 percent of her 2010-11 budget. On Tuesday, some 3,300 Hall Countians exercised the franchise, so taxpayers’ expense was roughly $13.50 per voter, versus about $1.50 in a general election.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to wonder whether runoffs are worth the expense and effort, because more citizens would show up at the polls. But they don’t: Turnout for statewide runoffs has been pitiful over the past 12 years. The lone exception was the 2008 U.S. Senate finale, which drew 41 percent of the electorate.
So, it’s time to ask the question. Many states need only a plurality to declare a winner. Some of them, as Georgia once did, require that plurality to be above a certain threshold — say, 45 percent — to confer greater legitimacy on the winner.
Legitimacy is a, well, legitimate issue. Supporters of runoffs say only a candidate who wins a majority of the votes can rightfully claim the office.
But it’s all too common to see the winner of a runoff garner far fewer votes than the leader in the general election got. For example, Tuesday’s winner in the Supreme Court race, incumbent David Nahmias, got about half as many votes as the third-place candidate won back on Nov. 2. Is a majority of 5 percent turnout really more legitimate than a plurality of 50 percent turnout?
Secretary of State Brian Kemp is convening a panel to recommend changes to make elections more cost-effective in our cash-strapped times. The group should take an especially hard look at runoffs, and every option — from Instant Runoff Voting, to secure online voting, to eliminating them altogether — ought to be on the table.
– By Kyle Wingfield
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