In Georgia, if no candidate receives 50% of the general election vote for a statewide or congressional district race, there’s a runoff between the top two vote-getters. In recent decades, the Peach State has had four high-profile runoff elections, all for the U.S. Senate.
The last was on Jan. 5, 2021, when, in a pair of runoffs, the state made history by electing Raphael Warnock, the first African American U.S. senator elected in the state and second elected in the Deep South since 1875, and Jon Ossoff, the first Southern Jewish U.S. senator elected since 1974.
Enthusiasm is strong for the Dec. 6, 2022, runoff election between Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, and former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate.
But beyond the hype, there’s a cost. Runoff elections in the state are expensive. Turnout is also typically lower in runoffs than in general elections, meaning not as many people’s voices are ultimately involved in the final decision.
Four runoff elections, no clear trend
Republicans and Democrats split the four runoff elections, which were in 1992 between incumbent Wyche Fowler, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Paul Coverdell; in 2008 between incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin; and two in 2020 – one between Ossoff and incumbent Republican David Perdue, and the other between Warnock and incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler.
In two cases, the person who finished ahead in the original election lost the runoff. Three of four incumbents lost the runoff, but Loeffler had held that office for barely a year, and had never held another elective office – so she may not have had a full incumbent’s advantage.
The only consistent trend is that the runoff elections drew fewer voters than the general elections that preceded them. In 2021, the runoffs between Ossoff and Perdue and Warnock and Loeffler drew national media interest and a surge of political donations, because the balance of power in the Senate was at stake. Even then, those elections had lower vote totals – though only slightly – than the November 2020 general election that had preceded the runoffs.
In 1992 and 2008, the drop in turnout was much more pronounced, declining by more than 20 percentage points.
A costly endeavor
Runoff elections are expensive for the Peach State.
Kennesaw State University professors Kerwin Swint and J. Benjamin Taylor teamed up with their student Ayla McGinnis to analyze electoral and financial data from 59 of Georgia’s 159 counties. They estimated the 2020 Senate runoffs cost $75 million statewide to determine who would sit in the Senate.
There is a less expensive way. “You can accomplish the same thing with instant runoff voting as with a general election runoff without conducting a whole separate election,” Swint has said. “It’s quick, it’s cheap, it does the same thing, so it’s something Georgia should take a look at.”
In instant-runoff voting, also sometimes called ranked-choice voting, voters indicate the order in which they prefer candidates. If no majority winner emerges immediately, the lowest vote-getter is dropped, and the votes that had been for that person are reassigned to those voters’ next-best choices. The process continues until one candidate gets more than half of the votes.
There may be an even simpler solution.
“The other thing Georgia could take a look at is just eliminating runoffs altogether and moving to a plurality vote,” in which the person who gets more votes than any other wins, Swint said.
So far, early voting for this year’s Georgia runoff has broken records. But it has cost a lot, and the number of votes cast still may not match the first-round totals. Perhaps that’s why instant-runoff voting is already being proposed for future Georgia elections.
This article was updated Dec. 6, 2022, to correct the reference to Black senators from the Deep South since Reconstruction.