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Tiny turnout likely to run up cost per vote

We often hear politicians talking about the price of democracy, usually in nebulous terms about something ephemeral.

But the price of democracy in Georgia will be as concrete as dollars and cents this week when voters in every nook and cranny of the state go the polls to elect a member of the Public Service Commission.

With Tuesday's statewide general election runoff limited to just that one down-ballot race, very few voters are expected to exercise their constitutional rights.

"I figure we may have 2 percent, which for us is 6,300 voters,'' said Gwinnett County Elections Director Lynn Ledford.

Crunch that number of voters in with the $200,000 the runoff is going to cost Gwinnett taxpayers - the low end of Ledford's estimate - and you get about $31.75 for each vote in favor of either Democratic incumbent David Burgess or Republican challenger Chuck Eaton.

The good news is the cost of the runoff in Gwinnett will be only about one-third the cost of a general election, Ledford said.

With such a small turnout expected, county elections offices don't need to put as many poll workers in the precincts or print as many paper ballots for provisional and absentee voting.

However, they still have to open every poll, which means they still have to rent space in the same buildings.

"Everything's cheaper about it, but it still costs money,'' said Carolyn Hatcher, supervisor of elections in Dougherty County.

What made all of this necessary?

Burgess was the top vote-getter in the Nov. 7 election for the PSC's District 3 seat. But his 48.8 percent showing left him short of the 50 percent required by state law to claim victory.

That forced him into a runoff with Eaton, who finished second in the three-way race with 46.3 percent of the vote.

All the Nov. 7 election did was knock out Libertarian candidate Paul MacGregor, who ran a distant third at 4.9 percent.

Some might argue that 48.8 percent ought to be close enough to a majority of the vote to win an election outright and avoid a costly runoff.

Indeed, during a brief portion of Georgia's recent history, it was.

Following Republican Paul Coverdell's 1992 runoff victory over Democratic U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler, the then-Democratic controlled General Assembly passed legislation setting the bar for avoiding a general election runoff at 45 percent.

That move paid off four years later, as Democrat Max Cleland defeated Republican Guy Millner to capture the retiring Sam Nunn's Senate seat with just 48.9 percent of the vote.

With that experience sticking in their craws, Republicans changed the law again after they took complete control of the legislature two years ago.

One of the provisions of an omnibus election reform bill the General Assembly passed last year raised the standard for victory back to 50 percent plus one vote.

Historically, general election runoffs have been good to Republicans in Georgia.

Besides Coverdell's win over Fowler, the GOP also prevailed in another 1992 runoff involving a PSC race.

More recently, in 2000, a Republican bested a Democrat in a state Senate runoff.

But House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, said there's more to it than partisan politics. He said the stakes are too important in general elections to award victories to candidates who haven't earned majority support.

"You want to make sure you've got the candidate that voters want in there,'' he said.

Keen said he understands the concern about spending so much money on a runoff with just one down-ballot race.

But he argued that this week's single-contest runoff is simply the luck of the draw.

"The potential was there for several runoffs,'' he said. "Then, there would have been a lot more interest and publicity.''

Keen said he would support lowering the bar for avoiding runoffs to 45 percent only in primaries, where the stakes aren't quite as high, an option he said was briefly considered when lawmakers were putting together last year's reform bill.

However, he said he's not planning on introducing such a proposal and doesn't know of anyone who is.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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