Like it or not, Georgia requires that partisan nominees get a majority of the vote. When no candidate polls a majority, the top two finishers compete in a runoff. The state has had this requirement in place for more than half a century.
When a runoff is needed to complete the partisan selection process, the outcome often gets decided by a small share of the electorate. Turnout in the runoff now is usually much lower than in the primary. In some instances, the decrease in participation from the primary to the runoff is dramatic.
For example, in the 2010 Democratic contest for secretary of state, almost 350,000 people participated in the primary. The decisive runoff attracted less than 30 percent as many voters as the candidate who finished second in the initial voting overtook the leader and won the nomination. A runoff for a congressional seat in 2012 saw participation fall by more than 80 percent. The nominee won support from a majority of those casting ballots, but it was a majority of a sharply reduced electorate. Moreover the smaller turnout in a runoff may not be representative of the larger electorate that cast ballots in the initial primary. Runoffs that attract few voters are dominated by habitual voters, that is, those who always go to the polls.
In the runoff scheduled for July 26, but for which early voting is already underway, it is likely that the winners of the single congressional contest, the dozen General Assembly posts and various local offices will secure their party’s nod but with fewer votes having been cast than in the May primary. As reported in the accompanying table, of 92 runoffs held over the last decade for non-local offices and excluding special elections to fill vacancies, the turnout in the runoff has been lower than in the preceding primary in all but five contests. The same pattern holds for the last quarter century. Since 1992, in all but seven of 254 runoffs, fewer voters participated that in the primary.
The size of the decline in participation from the primary to the runoff varies from just a few percentage points to decreases by more than three-fourths. In the most recent presidential election year, on average fewer than half as many voters participated in the runoff as in the primary. Generally runoffs in mid-term years have greater success than in presidential years in getting voters to the polls. In 2014 the average drop off from the primary to the 17 runoffs was 18 percent.
Decreasing participation from the primary to the runoff has not always been the pattern. Back when Georgia was a one-party Democratic state with Republicans rarely able to mount a serious challenge, more voters recognized the runoff as the decisive contest and went to the polls. From 1966 through 1990, 46 percent of the 299 runoffs drew more voters than the accompanying primary.
During the one-party era, like today, runoffs in mid-term years attracted a relatively larger turnout than second elections held in presidential years. Prior to 1994, years in which a Democratic runoff for governor occurred, voting increased in most runoffs. In 1966, all but one of 15 runoffs had more voters than the preceding primary. Similar patterns existed in 1970 and 1974. As recently as 1982, runoffs attracted more voters than the primary in 26 of 35 contests.
Runoff Compared with Primary Turnout
Primary Turnout Compared with Runoff Turnout
Primary more than Runoff Runoff more than Primary
1966 – 1990 163 136
1966 – 1990 Gubernatorial Years 58 112
Open Governor 28 101
Incumbent Governor 30 11
1968 – 1988 Presidential Years 105 24
1992 – 2004 160 2
2006 – 2014 87 5
With runoffs now much less likely to attract voters than a generation ago, some have suggested eliminating the majority-vote requirement. Florida, one of the most competitive states in the nation, eliminated runoffs in 2002 and North Carolina reduced the vote share needed for nominations to 40 percent in 1989. Another option exists and it is one that has been adopted by a small but growing number of municipalities. Minneapolis and San Francisco are two large cities that have moved to the instant runoff or alternative vote. Smaller cities like Cary, North Carolina, and Takoma Park, Maryland, have switched to the instant runoff.
In jurisdictions using the instant runoff, voters rank their preferences. If no candidate gets a majority, ballots for the least popular candidate are reallocated to those voters’ second choices. The elimination of less successful candidates continues with their votes given to second choices until one of the remaining candidates has a majority. A majority is achieved and it is achieved using the votes from the initial primary which, as shown above, now almost always has a larger turnout than the succeeding runoff attracts.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He is co-author of Runoff Elections in the United States (University of North Carolina Press).