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Our Views: Runoff repairs needed

Federal judge’s ruling could complicate Ga. elections, but there may be a solution

POSTED: July 21, 2013 1:00 a.m.

So much for thinking the federal government was going to butt out of Georgia’s election process. Just a few weeks after a Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act freed our state from one restriction, along comes another.

The most recent came in a ruling by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones that renders Georgia’s runoff voting system invalid because it doesn’t allow enough time for voters overseas, including those in the military, to mark and return absentee ballots for federal elections.

The previous calendar allowed three weeks between a primary and runoff and four weeks for a general election between the top two survivors in a multicandidate field. A runoff is triggered when no candidate earns a majority of the votes, at least 50 percent plus one.

This system has been in place for decades, some claiming its genesis was the desire to keep public offices segregated. By winnowing out the top two candidates in a crowded field for a second round, those who wished to keep minorities from office could rally around the remaining candidate.

In past years, Georgia’s runoff elections provided spirited races for U.S. senator won by Saxby Chambliss and Paul Coverdell after third-party hopefuls kept everyone shy of 50 percent. More recently, Nathan Deal was able to turn his second-place showing in the Republican primary for governor in 2010 into a narrow runoff victory over Karen Handel.

The ruling would shove runoff races out a full 45 days from the original election, spreading the calendar out further and leading to longer runoff campaigns. And that’s just for federal races; it wouldn’t affect state races, which could be on a different schedule, if lawmakers don’t take action to prevent it.

Needless to say, scheduling that many extra trips to the polls would present a costly logistic nightmare for local voting offices. As it is, an election year with two primary and two general election races taxes those who tally the votes. In 2010, Hall County voters had to trudge to the polls five times in a year with a special election and two runoffs.

Extending the election season even further would create greater expense for governments and also for candidates, who already must raise and blow through a mountain of cash to conduct their campaigns. Spreading out the races over additional weeks could prove quite costly.

To counter the ruling, Georgia has proposed keeping its current calendar and continuing to count overseas ballots for 45 days. That would give absentee voters more time, but could potentially change a result in a tight race after the first votes are counted.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp has asked the state legislature to take up the issue and change the state election calendar to coincide with the new dates so all elections could be held at the same time. He also is pursuing an appeal of the ruling, which the attorney general is considering.

Short of that, the choice is to accept the new federal calendar and slip the other elections in with it or scrap the runoff system altogether. Some favor that, allowing the candidate with the most votes to move on in a primary or general election.

But there is merit to electing a consensus candidate and having at least 50 percent of the electorate on board. Three straight presidential elections from 1992-2000 were won by candidates who failed to earn support from half of American voters.

To fix this problem, there is a third way that could solve the issue for good, one many jurisdictions are beginning to adopt: Instant runoffs.

It works like this: When casting a ballot, voters rank candidates in a multiperson field based on their preference. If no one earns a majority, the last-place finisher is tossed out and the second choices are tallied. When the count produces a candidate with 50 percent-plus one, that person is the winner.

This system basically accomplishes what a runoff does but without the extra weeks of expensive campaigning and the bothersome, costly need to haul out the voting machines again.

By selecting candidates in order of preference, voters can winnow out “spoiler” candidates who might get only enough votes to deny one candidate a majority. And in this system, absentee ballots can be sent out early enough and counted on election day without having to extend the counting deadline.

Another compromise would be a system now used by several states in which the instant runoff ranking of candidates appears only on absentee ballots. That would mean overseas voters need only cast ballots once, with their second choices counted if a runoff is needed.

The only clear downside to this process is that it could make ballots confusing to voters new to such a procedure. If adopted, it would require a massive education system by Kemp’s office and local jurisdictions to make sure Georgians know how it works and can cast their votes properly.

There’s also hope on the Voting Rights Act front: Congress has begun to take up the issue and find a way to create new guidelines for how to apply the Act’s section on preclearance to target election discrimination.

It’s hard to imagine Congress agreeing on this, or much of anything. But if it happens, it would keep in line with the directive from the court and the spirit of the Act. The goal should be to weed out discrimination where evidence of it is found. The law was widely successful in creating a fairer playing field, but it should be updated for a new century to keep it effective.

Any changes needed to ensure a voting system that makes it easier, accessible and less expensive for everyone is worth the effort.


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