Kennesaw State researchers say new election system may better serve Georgians

KENNESAW, Ga. | Oct 31, 2022

A team of Kennesaw State researchers say Georgia voters may be better served by a new kind of general election runoff system than the one the state has used for nearly two decades.

Georgia has in the past decided general elections by a plurality vote, meaning the candidate with the most votes won outright. But in 2005, the general election runoff system was reintroduced, forcing an additional election between the top two vote-getters, if no candidate won 50% plus one vote. Georgia is the only state in the nation to use the runoff system in both the primary and the general election, though Mississippi adopted it in 2020, but hasn’t had a general election runoff since the law went into effect.

“Statewide we’re paying millions of dollars to have this general election runoff when many fewer people participate in it, so is it serving the citizens of Georgia well? Is it worth keeping, or should we look at making some changes,” said Kerwin Swint, director of the School of Government and International Affairs and professor of political science. Swint, along with J. Benjamin Taylor, associate professor of political science and government, and international affairs student Ayla McGinnis collected election turnout data from 59 of Georgia’s 159 counties and analyzed the financial and logistical burdens of runoff elections on the state, as well as the effect of campaign rhetoric on voter attitudes.

Kerwin Swint, Ayla McGinnis, J. Benjamin Taylor
Kerwin Swint, Ayla McGinnis, J. Benjamin Taylor

Based on feedback from 59 counties, the Kennesaw State researchers estimate the cost of the recent 2020 Senatorial election runoff is about $75 million statewide. The extra expenses tend to be a bigger burden for the least populated counties with their smaller budgets, while larger counties face extra expenses and logistical challenges to staff voting locations. Turnout statewide is nearly always significantly lower in runoffs. 

Beyond the added costs and burdens to local elections offices, researchers say voter fatigue and campaigns that trend more negative in runoffs than in general elections play a significant role in voter attitudes and further decrease turnout.

According to the researchers, a better solution is a system that is already being used successfully in other states: instant runoff voting. Instant runoff voting (IRV) asks voters to rank their choice of candidates from top to bottom. If no majority winner is found during tabulation, the lowest vote-getter is dropped from counting and the voters’ next choice is tabulated. This happens until a majority winner is identified.

“You can accomplish the same thing with instant runoff voting as with a general election runoff without conducting a whole separate election. That’s the beauty of it. It’s quick, it’s cheap, it does the same thing, so it’s something Georgia should take a look at,” Swint said. “The other thing Georgia could take a look at is just eliminating runoffs altogether and moving to a plurality vote.”

Among those in support of the IRV system is former state Rep. Scot Turner, who helped fund Swint’s research with a $7,000 grant through his organization, Eternal Vigilance Action Inc. Turner said the organization’s board is made up of Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats who are former legislators, activists and academics. 

Turner said he believes IRV is a system that better serves Georgians and favors no political party.

“I was elected in a runoff and have always felt that the drop-off in turnout was simply awful and made the vote unrepresentative of the general population. It was also expensive for the taxpayers and created a full month-long period where my House district went unrepresented during an active legislative session,” Turner said. “Instant runoffs save time, money, and increase turnout and are therefore more reflective of the will of the people.”

Bill Bozarth of Better Ballot Georgia said he was impressed with the research by Swint’s team and believes it confirmed Better Ballot’s own findings that a change to IRV would better represent the will of more Georgians, reduce voter fatigue, encourage candidates to move from polarized rhetoric to a broader mandate and in addition, save millions of taxpayer dollars.

Researchers said a change to IRV would require education of the public and convincing of state legislators, who would have to introduce a bill to change the system. Meanwhile, Swint’s team is continuing its research and hopes of receiving feedback from more Georgia counties.

The team, led by McGinnis, will present its findings at the Nov. 9 Georgia Political Science Association annual meeting in Savannah.

–  By Thomas Hartwell
Photos by Darnell Wilburn

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