Low turnouts bring runoffs into question

If you think the 22 percent voter turnout in last month's primaries was a discouraging sign of the health of Georgia's democracy, just wait until Tuesday's runoffs.

Only about 10 percent to 13 percent of registered voters statewide are expected to show up at the polls, and turnout is likely to be even lower in some counties, said Kara Sinkule, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Cathy Cox.

Part of the reason is that neither a gubernatorial nor U.S. Senate nomination will be decided in this year's runoffs.

Georgia has no Senate seat up for grabs this year, while Gov. Sonny Perdue and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor wrapped up the Republican and Democratic nominations for governor, respectively, in the primaries.

The timing of the runoffs doesn't help, either, competing with the end of vacation season and the start of a new school year.

"It's very difficult to get on people's radar screens this time of year," Sinkule said.

With so few voters deciding party nominees, it makes sense to question why Georgia goes through the bother, not to mention the cost to taxpayers, of having runoffs.

In fact, most states don't feature that extra election. Instead, they award party nominations to the candidates who finish first in the primaries, whether or not they win a majority of the vote.

Only in the South are primary runoffs a fixture. Besides Georgia, runoffs are used to pick party nominees in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

It's no coincidence that all of those states were once part of the Solid South, where Democrats ruled and whoever won the Democratic primary in the spring or summer was a virtual shoe-in to defeat the Republican nominee in the fall.

"(Runoffs) are a leftover from the South's one-party days," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Given that the primary was the election, it made sense to make sure to get a winner with the majority of the vote."

Because primaries and runoffs were so important in those days, they also tended to attract a lot of voters.

But with the two-party system now the norm, turnouts for primaries and runoffs have fallen precipitously in recent decades, as more and more voters opt to skip the preliminaries for the main event.

"People are increasingly independent," Sabato said. "They say, 'I'll wait to vote until November, when it counts.'"

Some states have reacted to declining turnouts by either getting rid of runoffs entirely or taking steps to reduce the number of runoffs.

Virginia abolished runoffs back in the 1970s.

More recently, North Carolina rolled back the percentage of the vote a candidate has to win in a primary to avoid a runoff to 40 percent. Georgia requires a runoff if a candidate fails to gain 50 percent of the vote plus one.

"I think that's a reasonable compromise," Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University, said of the 40 percent standard. "You'd eliminate most runoffs yet prevent circumstances where someone gets elected with 20 percent of the vote."

Research also indicates that reducing the trigger for runoffs to 40 percent wouldn't affect most primary results in Georgia.

During this decade, the only statewide or congressional runoff won by the candidate who finished second in the primary was the Republican primary for lieutenant governor in 2002.

Then-state Sen. Mike Beatty compiled 44.8 percent of the vote in that year's primary, to 43.6 percent for then-Rep. Steve Stancil, only to lose to Stancil in the runoff.

But in that case, neither candidate had a clear advantage going into the runoff because the primary vote was so close.

In every primary where the first-place finisher failed to gain a majority of the vote but built up a solid lead, he or she prevailed in the runoff.

"If you can show a fairly large plurality of the vote (in the primary), the leader will generally go on to win," Black said.

But don't look for such arguments to sway politicians in Georgia, or most other runoff states, to suddenly abandon the current system.

Sabato said runoffs are too ingrained in the political landscape to go away easily.

"These things are part of tradition," he said. "People don't even think about it."

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.