The Corner

Politics & Policy

Georgia Republicans Should End Runoffs

People cast their ballots during early voting for the presidential elections at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Ga., October 12, 2020. (Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)

Once things settle back to some normalcy in the political process, there are more things to consider about how the Georgia Senate runoffs went down. Here’s something to bear in mind: If David Perdue had been reelected, Republicans would continue to control the Senate. Had it not been for Georgia’s runoff system, he would have been re-elected. The Republicans who still control Georgia’s state government should use that as prodding to do what they should have done years ago, and abolish runoff elections.

Forty-five states choose statewide offices by winner-take-all Election Day votes, following party primaries. This is the normal, traditional American system, and while it can be flawed at times, it works. A 46th, Maine, uses the same system except with ranked-choice voting. That leaves Georgia, Louisiana, Washington, and California as the outliers:

  • Louisiana has an Election Day “jungle primary,” in which all candidates from all parties are free to run, and if nobody gets 50 percent of the vote, a post–Election Day runoff is held between the top two vote-getters (regardless of party).
  • The Washington and California systems are the same as Louisiana’s, except that the jungle primary is held on primary day, and whether or not somebody gets 50 percent of the vote, there is a showdown between the top two vote-getters (regardless of party) on Election Day.
  • Georgia typically has a party primary, but then a runoff if neither candidate gets 50 percent on Election Day. That is how the Perdue-Ossoff race was run. The special election, however, used a Louisiana-style system, with an Election Day primary and the runoff between Kelly Loeffler and Raphael Warnock. Warnock got 32.9 percent of the vote, Loeffler 25.9 percent, and Republican Doug Collins got 20 percent.

It is not really possible to be sure how the Warnock-Loeffler race would have played out on Election Day, had it been a two-candidate fight, although the various Republican candidates got a total of 49.4 percent of the vote, compared with 48.4 percent for the Democrats. We do know for certain that, without a runoff system, Perdue would have won, 49.7 percent to 47.2 percent. Falling three-tenths of a percent short on Election Day forced Perdue into the runoff, which he lost.

Now, I’m not going to go all Vox.com here and insist that this process is illegitimate all of a sudden just because my side lost the elections. These were the rules, fair and square, Republicans contested these races under them, and they lost. But the reality is these have been bad systems for a long time, and if it takes a defeat for Georgia Republicans to accept that, this would be the time to learn that lesson. The Georgia and Louisiana systems are relics of the last gasps of the old segregationist Dixiecrat Party control of their states (Georgia instituted its current system in 1962, Louisiana in 1977), originally designed to keep black candidates and/or Republicans from winning elections. Washington, which adopted its system in 2004, and California, which adopted its system in 2010, claimed that they did so to end partisanship, though in California it has had the opposite effect, frequently shutting Republicans entirely out of state elections, leading the California Democratic party to become ever more extreme and intransigent, while California Republicans become more irresponsible. In Washington, Republicans have not won the governorship since 1980, their longest drought in the nation, but they have at least typically managed to stay on the ballot.

A traditional winner-take-all Election Day system is simply a better, more time-tested system, and its nationwide prevalence leads to more consistent outcomes across the country, in which presidential races drive quadrennial election turnout, and national midterm sentiment drives midterm turnout.

From a partisan perspective, Georgia Republicans calculated that they depended on more of the sorts of educated, homeowning adult voters who tend to be high-turnout, while Georgia Democrats depended more on the sorts of young, urban, and/or uneducated voters who tend to be low-turnout. In 1992 and 2008, that was a correct calculation, and runoffs helped Republicans win Senate races — but that is not necessarily true anymore. Moreover, the timing of this runoff, coming as it did after Donald Trump lost on Election Day but during the period when he was throwing a two-month public temper tantrum that dominated the headlines, worked badly against Republicans. It was also unhealthy for the country. In a normal election setting, Republicans in Congress would have had less incentive to focus on keeping up the spirits of Trump supporters during the recount/contest/transition period. There would have been time to let tempers cool. The runoffs during the recounts proved a toxic brew.

In Election Day referenda this year, Florida voters rejected a jungle primary, while Massachusetts voters rejected ranked-choice voting. Those were wise decisions. Even if it is a lost cause to bring sense to California or Washington, the Georgia and Louisiana governments should pay heed, and fall in line with the rest of America.