Elections and Voting Rights: You Get What You Pay For

In Charlie’s post about the runoffs yesterday morning, someone wondered why Georgia had gone to a nine week runoff period, given that previous runoffs took place three weeks after the initial election. There are several parts to the answer.

Perhaps the easiest part of the answer is that a longer runoff period than was used in the past is required by Federal law. The law is the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, also known as UOCAVA. The law requires a 45 day period for overseas voters to get their ballots returned to their elections office. 45 days is a tad over six weeks. Add enough time to certify the original primary results and get new ballots printed, and you have the nine week period between primary and runoff we have now. The US Justice Department sued Georgia two years ago, and this year’s election dates were determined by a federal judge.

The more difficult part of the answer is how do you shorten the runoff period?

One way would be to implement what are called instant runoffs. With instant runoffs, voters rank all the candidates for an office when they vote in the primary. If the first choice of all voters gets less then 50%, the candidate with the least number of first-round votes is droppped, and that candidate’s voters second choice is used. If that’s not enough to produce a winner, the process repeats itself until someone gets 50%+1.

The problem there is that, as reported by the AJC Political Insider, Georgia’s voting machines and tabulation systems are not designed to support this type of voting. As a result, in order to move to an instant runoff system, the state would either need to replace all the voting equipment statewide with newer equipment (which costs a lot of money), or develop a parallel system of instant runoffs for overseas voters and integrate it into the current system, all the while keeping deadlines for certifying the vote (also costs money).

Another solution would be to implement a secured internet system for overseas voters, but the cost of that could be north of $3,000 per vote cast.

My point here isn’t to try to determine the best way to conduct runoff elections, but to illustrate that ideal solutions to elections and voting issues inevitably have to be paid for by somebody.

Every election cycle, we hear of long lines at polling places and hours-long delays in being able to cast a ballot. And that, too, has to do with money. To reduce lines and delays, elections offices would need to add additional voting machines, and likely more personnel to allow voters to take advantage of them in a timely manner.

For those who complain their polling place is too far away, staffing additional precincts (or early voting locations) also costs money for staff, voting machines, and facility rent.

In my county of Gwinnett, the cost of putting on an election is obvious. In the presidential election year, the elections office spent $5,345,750 on its operations. In the non-election year 2013, that number dropped by more than half, to $2,464,149. In order to be able to run the 2014 elections, the department requested $5,374,669 for its budget.

In 2015, the General Assembly is going to have to make some choices about how runoff elections will be handled in the Peach State. And, like so many things in life, it will have to choose between cheap, fast and good. In the case of elections, good is a must. No one wants to deny the right of a registered voter to vote and get their ballot counted correctly. That leaves the tradeoff between cheap and fast.

Is it worth it for the state and its counties to spend more money to shorten the runoff period? What do you think?


  1. Josh McKoon says:

    Moving to instant runoffs for the small population of overseas voters is a good solution to this problem. South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana have all figured this out, surely Georgia can do it. The much promised benefit of a May primary has been proven false, given the abysmal turnout. All jokes about a short session aside, the public was done a great disservice by placing qualifying in the middle of the legislative session and the race for the exits to hit the fundraising circuit did little to advance thoughtful public policy making. We should return to our original election calendar as soon as possible for these and many other reasons.

  2. Josh McKoon says:

    From the actual federal law on this subject:

    (9)if the State declares or otherwise holds a runoff election for Federal office, establish a written plan that provides absentee ballots are made available to absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters in manner that gives them sufficient time to vote in the runoff election.

    Instant Runoff Voting for Overseas Voters = Written Plan

  3. NoTeabagging says:

    If the instant runoff system is implemented I would like an option to leave a blank ranking for candidates that I wish NOT to support. Personally, I wish for an instant winner system that eliminates all runoffs. The constant campaigning is annoying. Do it once. Get it over. Give us plebians a break until the Fall. This should have support from candidates since it gives the winners a longer fundraising window.
    Apologies to those whose lifeblood flows on campaigns, much like any dedicated sports fan in-season.

    • My understanding is that in a X candidate race (where X is greater than 2) you could rank starting at 1 and ending at 1 if you want to, or you could go all the way to X.

      So in the Senate race you could have said:
      1 Broun
      2 Gingrey
      3 Handel
      4 Kingston
      5 Perdue

      In which case, your vote for Broun would be active until whatever round Broun was the lowest recipient of votes, at which point your vote would switch to the next highest candidate who was still left.

      Now you could also say: 1 Broun and have that be it, in which case you would no longer count as part of the denominator once Broun was eliminated. Or you could say 1 Broun 2 Gingrey and not rank the rest and if Broun/Gingrey aren’t in the final 2 again your vote wouldn’t be a deciding vote in the final tally.

  4. CJBear71 says:

    Or, we could just eliminate the runoff all together, and go back to a reasonable primary calendar. Does anyone really think it was advantageous to have the primary on May 20th? And it will have to stay that way every 2 years now based on the federal judge’s ruling. Yes, in a few cases, you will have to live with a plurality of say 28% beating 26% beating 24%. But most times I expect it will be the 44% candidate beating the rest of the field. Also, I think in the short run, it gives the mainstream candidates an advantage over the multiple tea party candidates who have yet to seriously unite behind one candidate in these multi-person races for the main primary. Handel came the closest to doing that, but she couldn’t pull it over the top.

  5. northside101 says:

    For all the complaints about a May 20 primary, I can bet you more states have theirs in May (even some southern ones like North Carolina and Kentucky) than haves theirs in July (no states, nope, not one, are having any in July this year). It is easy to blame the date for the low turnout, but the reality is that there is never, or almost never, a “perfect” time to hold a primary. In 2008, Georgia had its presidential primary on February 5, the dead of winter (think, like, this year, we had our ice storm on or about January 28), yet slightly over 2 million Georgians voted (about 963,000 on the Republican side and 1,061,000 on the democratic side). In 2012, the pres. primary moved to March (of course it was academic on the Democratic side with Obama unopposed for his party’s nomination)—God forbid, spring break time in many high schools—yet the GOP primary still drew a bit over 900,000 voters. Plus with 3 weeks of early voting, no one really has an excuse to say they could not vote May 20—if they really wanted to. The excuses about graduations, commencements…are just that….excuses.

    In the July 2010 GOP primary for governor, about 680,000 voted, compared to 605,000 in this year’s Senate primary. Neither figure particularly impressive—regardless of the date—when you consider turnout years ago in Democratic primaries. In 1980, over a million votes were cast in the high-profile Senate Democratic primary between Herman Talmadge, Zell Miller and others—and that was when the state’s population was only a bit more than half what it is today. In 1990, 1,052,315 Georgians voted in the Democratic gubernatorial primary (Zell Miller, Andy Young, Roy Barnes etc)—which remains a record turnout for a non presidential (Democratic or Republican) primary in this state. It was held in July that year. But back then, the Democratic primary mostly was tantamount to election—the general election often was just a formality…

    …which raises another point, as the state becomes more purple, perhaps what you see is more people deciding to wait until November to make a decision. They may have people they would like to vote for in both parties, but of course can’t split their ticket (you have to choose one party or the other in the primary).

    As for runoffs, most states (somewhere around 40) don’t have them. Tennessee to our north does not have runoffs (if they ever did, it was many decades ago), nor does Virginia. Florida eliminated their runoff some years ago. But in those three states, you have a history of healthy two-party competition. All 3 of those states for instance began voting GOP for president with Ike some 60+ years ago, and all 3 had elected GOP governors by 1970 (unlike Georgia, where that did not happen for another generation). North Carolina has an interesting system in which they have runoffs, but only if the leading candidate for a seat does not get at least 40 percent of the vote (their GOP Senate nominee this year got about 45% or so, the one facing Democrat Kay Hagan). If turnout in the GOP Senate runoff sinks to even lower numbers (as is widely expected), perhaps officials will face a hard choice about whether the costs of runoffs can be justified by the low turnouts. On the other hand, a runoff can help unite a party and prevent nomination of a fringe candidate—someone who say becomes the nominee with just 15 percent of the vote.

    • I’m all for a California style top 2 primary here. It would give primary ticket splitters (Democrats who live in Cobb, Republicans who live in DeKalb) the opportunity to weigh in on all races. And in heavily Republican areas, you could see two Republicans squaring off in a general election (probably much more of a choice than currently available even if a Democrat does run) and likewise in heavily Democratic areas two Democrats could square off.

      However I will note – even California’s primary turnout has been atrocious. Some people just don’t want to vote.

  6. FranInAtlanta says:

    To me, the best thing about a runoff is it gives the voters buy-in – the candidate preferred by the majority of voters is the nominee or the elected.
    I could live with instant runoff, but it would preclude making a decision after a President has been elected (Coverdell in 1992 and Chambliss in 2008).

  7. Will Durant says:

    As a taxpayer I don’t want to “pay for” any party’s Primary or ensuing runoff. Parties should come up with their own candidates at their own expense.

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