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Sluggish Georgia
Written January 9, 2021
 

 
In the state of Georgia, the winner of an election is required to have the support of a majority of the voters.  Of course, if three or more candidates are competing, the leader's share might be less than half.  In that case they hold another election — a runoff between only the top two finishers.  Unless there's a tie, one of them is sure to achieve 50%.

This majority requirement seems innocuous.  But according to a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of the Interior, it's “a way to challenge growing Black political strength.”

If a single Black candidate were to run against more than one white, the white candidates would typically split the racist vote and the Black might end up with more votes than anybody.  This once happened to a staunch segregationist named Denmark Groover.

In 1963, after he finally did get himself elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, Groover introduced a proposal to require a majority in every election.  The resulting runoff would typically pit the Black candidate against only one opponent, who would presumably collect all the white votes and win.

Today, seven Southern states follow this procedure at least in primary elections.  The unstated reason:  for a given office, more whites than Blacks are likely to be on the ballot.

On November 3, 2020, Georgia citizens went to the polls to choose not one but both of their U.S. Senators.

The Open Seat

One term won't expire until 2023, but due to a resignation at the end of 2019, an interim replacement had been appointed.  The remaining portion of the term needed to be filled by the voters.  I don't know why, but that special election wasn't scheduled to be held until eleven months later.  Twenty eager candidates filed for it.

Perhaps to streamline the process, Georgia law doesn't require a primary before a special election.  They could have held one alongside the other primaries in June; it would have eliminated seven Democrats and five Republicans from the field.  But no, all 20 candidates had to be listed on the November ballot.  It was obvious that nobody could win half the votes, so more balloting was going to be necessary.  In that runoff, Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock (who happens to be Black) defeated Republican interim Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

The Perdue Seat

For the other seat, Republican Sen. David Perdue was running for re-election.  Unopposed in the June primary, he won a plurality in November.

David Perdue (R)

49.7%

However, the presence of one more candidate in the race (a Libertarian) denied Perdue an outright majority.  Therefore a runoff was required for that seat as well.

Jon Ossoff (D)

47.9%

Shane Hazel (L)

 2.4%

.

The Excessive Delay

Georgia waited another two long months before conducting the pair of runoffs.  Warnock, Loeffler, Perdue, and Ossoff had already done all the campaigning they intended to do.  There didn't need to be any delay, except to supply the polling places with new ballots and allow for absentee voting.  Results could have been final by Thanksgiving.

Of course, American politicians have always favored long gaps following elections.  Between choosing and inaugurating a new President, the Constitution originally mandated four lame-duck months (November to March, shortened to 2½ months by the 20th amendment).  “There is something profoundly troubling,” Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas has written, “in allowing repudiated Presidents to continue to exercise the prerogatives of what is usually called ‘the most powerful political office in the world.’”

Ossoff Wins

In the January 6 runoff, Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff defeated Perdue.  What had changed in the intervening nine weeks?  One Georgian cited “depressed turnout in GOP counties, down 15-20% from November, probably due to constant conspiracy theories of the vote being rigged.”

According to another voter, “Perdue decided it was important to follow Trump — not to attend the second debate and speak to the people of Georgia.  His actions serve himself and Trump, not us.”

An Alternative to Runoffs

The delay could have been much shorter if Georgia law specified “Ranked Choice Voting,” which has been tried elsewhere including Maine.  Under RCV, ballots only have to be cast once.  Each voter not only marks his first choice but also can number his second choice, third choice, and so on.  The first-choice votes are tabulated; if no one has 50%, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated and the second-choice votes from his ballots are distributed among the remaining candidates.  This pruning continues until someone has 50%.

Here's how it could have gone in Georgia if one-third of the Libertarian voters had specified Perdue as their second choice while the other two-thirds had specified Ossoff:

FIRST
CHOICES

REDIS-
TRIBUTED

NEW
TOTALS

David Perdue (R)

49.7%

+0.8%

  50.5%  

Jon Ossoff (D)

47.9%

+1.6%

  49.5%

Shane Hazel (L)

  2.4%

–2.4%

Only Hazel's votes would have required redistribution.  Of course, the other Senate contest would have needed more computation, as many as 18 rounds:  first to redistribute the 20th finisher's votes, then the 19th, then the 18th, and so on.

So RCV could have settled things in November.  But no, it was necessary to wait until January and then hold a pair of runoffs.  In Perdue's race, the actual results were as follows:

FIRST
CHOICES

 

 RUN-
OFF

David Perdue (R)

49.7%

 

   49.5%  

Jon Ossoff (D)

47.9%

  50.5%

Shane Hazel (L)

  2.4%

–2.4%

Nearly a Billion Dollars Spent

These races held national significance because, as it turned out, they would decide which party controls the Senate.  Therefore, national organizations tried to influence the outcome with campaign contributions.  And they had two months to solicit like-minded donors.  Towards the end of 2020, even though I live in Pennsylvania, various political figures were sending me five emails every day, each begging for $7 or so for Georgia.

What did all this additional electioneering cost?  During those intervening nine weeks, according to Emma Green of The Atlantic, $443,210,038 was contributed to the four Senatorial campaigns.  “Outside groups, not legally affiliated with the four candidates, put in nearly half a billion more.  ...Every dollar is a statement that the most important political action in America is happening in Washington, not among local public-health officials battling the coronavirus nor among school boards navigating in-person reopening.”

Green continues, “There's something appalling about Americans spending this much on a pair of Senate seats during a pandemic, when so many people desperately need money.  ...The majority of the money flowing into Georgia comes from outside the state, spent by people who likely have little connection to any of its residents.  Little of this money will go to long-term investment in the state.”  The big winners are out-of-state consultants and media owners.

Moreover, Green says, such spending likely has very little effect on how voters vote.  “Political advertising is particularly useless at the end of election cycles and in highly polarized environments like Georgia, which had already been blanketed with ads for months.”

Bragging rights are more important than the actual ads.

Boasting of many donors, like boasting of attendance at campaign rallies, is “a way for candidates to project moral superiority.”

 

TBT

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