At this rate, runoffs might not pay off

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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31 comments Add your comment

Tommy Maddox

December 1st, 2010
7:29 pm

I was cheered for when I entered my polling place on Wade Green Road.

That was a first.


December 1st, 2010
7:35 pm

Why are we voting for judges anyway? How do we know whether the person is qualified or not? For the most part, we know nothing about the candidates, and even if we did, we have no way of knowing how their positions affect their running of the courtroom.


December 1st, 2010
7:58 pm

The turnout for a runoff election between unknown judicial nominees (thanks, in large part, to the lack of reporting in the media) is less than an ideal scenario for determining whether eliminating runoffs is a good idea.

Recall that a GOP operative was attempting to get a Green Party candidate on the 2010 ballot in Texas to take votes away from the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. You can be sure that such a gambit would not have been attempted if a runoff were in place. Candidates with similar or overlapping positions have split the vote in many elections only to hand the victory to a less preferred candidate. That’s bad on so many levels. Eliminating runoffs should not be on the table.

On the other hand, Instant Runoff Voting plus improved ballot access for third-party candidates would be a significant boon for turnout and for our democracy. Rather than having to choose among the lesser of the evils, we might actually have an opportunity to vote our heads and our hearts for a change.

Tommy Maddox

December 1st, 2010
7:59 pm

Just like with any other candidate, you have to check up on them. Folks in or associated with the profession are always good sources for inquiry.

Joyce McCloy

December 1st, 2010
8:16 pm

Most states just don’t have runoff elections. As for instant runoff voting – you still get a “winner” with less than a majority of the ballots. As for turnout? Minnapolis MN had its first instant runoff voting election in 2009 and had the lowest turnout in over 100 years.


December 1st, 2010
8:26 pm

1. Judges shouldn’t run for their seats
2. Runoffs are not worth the effort and expense.

Joyce McCloy

December 1st, 2010
9:22 pm

“secure online voting” is an oxymoron. Totally hackable and super vulnerable to insider tampering. Also there’s no secret ballot, you have a pin number. Canadian municipalities tried it and had denial of service issues – people couldn’t vote! A private company had full control of the votes. Consider that Cyber warfare is the new frontier. Ok, not enough, then read about District of Columbia’s internet vote pilot that they allowed public to test, U of Michigan students took control of the system and it took 36 hours for Board of Elections to notice. read more:


December 1st, 2010
11:57 pm

Scrap the expensive runoff elections. There a faster, more economical ways to decide the winner. For example, rock, paper, scissors, a coin toss, or feats of strength.

Ayn Rant

December 2nd, 2010
5:28 am

Another unnecessary, meaningless election. Why is a position on the Supreme Court an elected position? Is there nothing in government above petty, divisive politics? Are voters qualified to judge matters of law? Are we a nation governed by political whims instead of laws? Poor, stupid Georgia! Poor America!

Clyde Wingnut

December 2nd, 2010
7:43 am

” 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?”

Sure, we followed THAT along. It reads like one of those mindbuster word-puzzles from the sixties: John is half of suzy’s age yet twice that of the skeleton in his closet yet he’s the same age as his nutty uncle frank in the attic. How old is Pete?

Okay, a twitter of: “voters don’t show up to vote for show downs” could easily have worked here, sir. We get it. After all, it were us’n folks’n what din’t do the votins, so, maybe you need to edit, or take my writing part duh class. Here’s the first and only lesson. Write a first draft. Delete it all. Write a second draft. Delete it all. Write a third draft. Delete it all, and so on, and so on, because less is more and so on and moron.


Kyle, take the holidays off. You’re ruining xmas. Like you ruined Obama’s first two years, and like the way you ruined the stock market rally, the midterms, the rise of Sarah Palin, and of course, the sexual revolution of the sixties. It’s not your fault. Some folks justs donts gits the gist of the ways of the gives and takes of what makes us ticks, that’s alls.

Try writing your Groundhog Day piece early so youze can edits.

Lillian Stanton

December 2nd, 2010
7:48 am


Ragnar Danneskjöld

December 2nd, 2010
7:53 am

Good morning all, two good questions arise: (1) Should judges be directly accountable to the voters, and (2) shall we require majority vote to vest individuals with power?

(1) Most people have only rare encounters with the judiciary, and the higher the judicial level, the less likely that any particular individual will ever have any interaction. Thus nobody cares. However, as the power wielded at that level is great, there should be a constraint on the power.

At the Federal level, even the lowest level judges have lifetime appointments, for better or worse. Most of the Federal judges are identifiable only under the latter scenario. If there is any judicial scheme worse than the Georgia system, it is the Federal system. A patent lack of accountability.

How to reconcile the general lack of interest with the need for accountability? I suggest scrap the concept of “accountability” at the judicial level, and simply impose a term limit, much like a Federal Reserve governor. Require reappointment and reconfirmation after some extended period, such as seven years. (Virtue of an odd number, makes it less likely that the same people will reapprove, due to even year election cycles.)

(2) I write as one generally hostile to the idea of vesting “power” in mere individuals, whether through elections or otherwise. If I have qualms about simple majorities, those qualms multiply with the idea of plurality governance.

A better course would be a system to make voting more convenient. In my particular case I work out of state, and found it impossible to vote in a short-turnaround – the early voting was too brief, and I was out of state on election day. I advocate internet voting. Certainly the risks of fraud exist there, but the magnitude of risk is not much greater than in a world where the dead vote due to lack of verification procedures.


December 2nd, 2010
7:59 am

Corporate money has already corrupted the House and Senate. It looks like they want to corrupt the judicary also. No suprise there.


December 2nd, 2010
9:21 am

Save money on elections?

Easy. Stop using taxpayer money to conduct Democratic and Republican Party primaries. The parties can pay every nickel of the costs or have a convention or caucuses.

But stop taxpayer funding of primaries.

Sopwith Camel

December 2nd, 2010
10:43 am

Clyde, you must truly have the mentality of a groundhog.


December 2nd, 2010
11:12 am

More evidence that Tea Party voters are hypocrites–

“Members of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus may tout their commitment to cutting government spending now, but they used the 111th Congress to request hundreds of earmarks that, taken cumulatively, added more than $1 billion to the federal budget.”

Kyle Wingfield

December 2nd, 2010
11:54 am

“The turnout for a runoff election between unknown judicial nominees (thanks, in large part, to the lack of reporting in the media) is less than an ideal scenario for determining whether eliminating runoffs is a good idea.”

You’re right, CJ. That’s why, later in the piece, I mentioned that this has been the rule over the past several election cycles in Georgia, with 2008 the exception proving the rule.

But to add to that point, here are runoff turnouts over those years:
2010 general runoff: 5% (first-round turnout was 51%)
2008 general runoff: 41% (first-round: 76%)
2008 primary runoff (Democrats only): 7% (first-round: 21%)
2006 general runoff: 5% (first-round: 48%)
2006 primary runoff: 9% (first-round: 33%)
2004 primary runoff (Democrats only): 7% (first-round: 35%)
2002 primary runoff: 9% (first-round: 30%)
1998 primary runoff: 13% (first-round: 24%)

So, I’m basing this on our track record of pitiful runoff turnout.


December 2nd, 2010
12:19 pm

We agree Kyle. We also agree that elections cost money. But the the notion that we should stop holding elections due to poor turnout or the associated expense is, in my mind, anti-democratic.

Find a less expensive way to hold runoff elections (e.g., IRV)? Absolutely. Find ways to inform and involve the electorate? Sure. But cancel runoffs altogether? That’s an idea that a third-world dictator would love.


December 2nd, 2010
12:25 pm

No matter if it be run-offs for judges or for governor, they should not be. Simple majority rules. Period. If the candidate gets the most votes of two, three or ten running for office, then that candidate should be the winner. Is not the primary-election to narrow the field for the general election? Why go through all of the cost and trouble of a run-off when there was basically one during the primary. Enough is enough……

Kyle Wingfield

December 2nd, 2010
12:27 pm

Ok, CJ, so explain why it’s more democratic and legitimate to have half of 5 percent elect somebody than to have a plurality of, say, 50 percent. That’s what sounds third world-ish imo.

I agree that a less expensive runoff is probably the best option, but at the same time I think the people, through their apathy toward runoffs, are speaking as to the value they place on the exercise.

Btw, re: IRV…if you have the time and interest, read this article:

It’s not necessarily a sound option — and the current voting machines we have can’t handle it. All that said, I do think it should be examined as part of any evaluation.

Question Authority

December 2nd, 2010
12:44 pm

Don’t vote, it only encourages the bastar*s.

Kyle Wingfield

December 2nd, 2010
1:01 pm

BS Aplenty, I don’t know about your disagreements with Cynthia or Jay or anyone else, but this isn’t the place to air them.

Rafe Hollister

December 2nd, 2010
1:23 pm

I am in favor of runoffs for the reason CJ mentioned above, spoilers ruin the outcome for both serious candidates.

I agree with Ragnar that judges, who do not campaign on what they stand for, are not good candidates for elections. Appoint them to staggered limited terms, so that no one individual or party can stack the courts.


December 2nd, 2010
1:41 pm

…at the same time I think the people, through their apathy toward runoffs, are speaking as to the value they place on the exercise.

I suspect that voter apathy in runoff elections and otherwise speaks to something a lot more complex than the value they place on the exercise.

Nevertheless, the exercise is democracy. Our Constitutional right to vote implies that we have a Constitutional right not to vote. It’s part of the deal.


December 2nd, 2010
1:42 pm

Common Cause Georgia has been at the forefront of reforming our judicial election system for years. On behalf of all Georgians, initatives have included voter education and advocating public financing for statewide judicial races. Visit us at to let us know your ideas on reform. And Kyle, today we posted a link to this column. Thanks for the good research.


December 2nd, 2010
1:43 pm

TN doesn’t do run offs..Seems to work good.

BS Aplenty

December 2nd, 2010
2:26 pm

Mr. Wingfield, all due respect to you and your colleagues at the AJC, but you’re all fair game on this opinion-driven blog where DIFFERENCES are, generally, what is being aired. It’s that First Amendment free speech thing.

Now, my lampooning Bookman & Tucker is due to their banning me from their sites for no apparent reason that I’m aware. It’s your business so run it as you must but I think people might want to know when your Opinion Writers can’t stand the heat of someone else’s opinion. So much so that they ban them from commenting. It’s as if you’re picking and choosing the opinions you wish to hear and publish. It’s OK, it’s your business to run as you will, but, as a former president once said, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

And that’s my point.

Kyle Wingfield

December 2nd, 2010
2:36 pm

BS Aplenty: As I said, I don’t know what your disagreements with Cynthia and Jay are. I think you’ll find that I allow people to take more than their fair share of shots at me on here. What I am telling you is that I don’t want you or anyone else discussing your differences with *other* AJC bloggers on *this* blog. That’s not the purpose of this forum.

You are more than welcome to continue commenting on the topics at hand. Being banned from other AJC blogs is not one of those topics.

BS Aplenty

December 2nd, 2010
2:40 pm

…if you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen.

That really is funny considering the president is going up in flames…

BS Aplenty

December 2nd, 2010
2:51 pm

Oh, now I get it. THEIR president is going up in flames…I’m slow but I get there.

Bring back "Babe Alley" to the Gold Dome!

December 2nd, 2010
6:21 pm

I think that I forgot to vote in my own runoff….