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Our Views: A ballot too many
Its too much to ask of voters to head back to the polls for yet another runoff
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The cost of voting

A look at Tuesday's runoff

Here we go again: Back to the polls.

Just when you thought this long (and long-winded) election year might end, Georgians must cast one final ballot on Tuesday to settle two statewide races for Supreme Court justice and state Court of Appeals.

In each case, the number of voters likely to take part is likely to be minuscule, with turnout perhaps in the single digits.

In the Supreme Court race, incumbent David Nahmias earned 48.2 percent of the votes in a three-candidate field on Nov. 2. Opponent Tammy Lynn Adkins took 35.2 percent, forcing a runoff.

The appeals court race drew six candidates, with Antoinette "Toni" Davis (25.5 percent of the vote) and Chris McFadden (22.6 percent) emerging as the top two.

One could make the case that judges should be appointed, not elected, but that's an argument for another day. Regardless, both are important positions, yet voters have not been able to weigh the qualifications and ideas of candidates as they have in higher-profile state races.

The result is that a scant few diligent souls will select leaders to sit on the state's highest courts.

In early voting, only about 200 people turned out to cast ballots. There may not be many more than that visiting the polls Tuesday, except in a few areas statewide where local races also have runoffs.

That's a shame. A cornerstone of our republic is that leaders are selected by and serve the wishes of a majority of the people. If fewer than 10 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, it's hard to make that claim.

Yet in this case we are not inclined to blame voter apathy for weak turnout. Instead chalk it up to ballot fatigue. Georgians already have cast ballots three, four or more times this year and at some point are entitled to wonder when it will end.

Voters in Northeast Georgia first were called upon in May to vote in a special election for the 9th District U.S. House seat left vacant when Nathan Deal resigned to run for governor. That race resulted in a runoff between winner Tom Graves and Gainesville's Lee Hawkins three weeks later.

Barely a month later came the July 20 primary, when 28 percent of voters in Hall County selected party nominees for governor and other statewide and local races. Following that was another runoff in August, with about the same turnout among Hall voters. And, oh yes — Graves bested Hawkins in yet another runoff, their fourth contest of the year.

Flowery Branch residents got to make another trip to the polls in September for a special election to fill a vacant city council seat.

Then it was six more weeks of TV attack ads, robo calls at dinnertime and the litter of campaign signs in yards and vacant lots. Finally, Election Day brought a turnout of more than 50 percent in Hall to elect Deal governor and choose a new generation of Georgia leaders. And Graves ... well, he was on the ballot for a fifth time, but this time unopposed and easily elected to a full term in Congress.

But because the judicial races were nonpartisan and included large fields of candidates, no candidate was able to top the 50-percent-plus-one threshold. So back we go to settle the last races of the busiest election year in memory.

This points out yet again that the state's runoff election rule is both archaic and inefficient, and it's time to consider a change.

Election officials in Hall, for instance, will have to crank up the voting machines and pay poll workers for a sixth time this year, all for the sake of a handful of voters. That will bring this year's election tab to more than $600,000 in a time when local governments can't afford to spend money on other crucial needs.

The rule grew from a time when Democrats ruled the state but the party establishment did not want to risk a minority candidate sneaking through the primary to November. So the runoff standard, originally set at 45 percent of the vote, was meant to rally support for the party's white candidate with the best chance to win.

The rule came into play in 1966 when Republican Bo Callaway earned more votes than segregationist Democrat Lester Maddox for governor, but not enough for a plurality. That threw the race to the legislature, which chose Maddox.

The standard later was changed to 50 percent plus one, but the idea remains that voters facing more than two choices on the ballot may have to return for a do-over.

It makes sense to have runoffs in a primary, when parties field a large number of candidates and it is difficult for any to earn a majority. That was the cast in July when Karen Handel bested Deal by 11 percent in the primary but lost in the runoff. Because the primary serves as a selection process for party nominees, a runoff is justified.

But once the top nominees meet in November, it should be winner take all, regardless of the margin.

One option would be for Georgia to adopt a system similar to other states that allow candidates to be ranked in order of preference. This creates an "instant runoff" among the voters' second choices and keeps us from having to make another trip to the polls.

Another solution would be to use the state primary to whittle the field in judicial races down to the final two, then select the winner in the November election if no one wins a majority.

Whatever the solution, we're likely to see even more runoffs in the future. Divisions in the major parties could lead to more third-party and independent candidates, and thus more runoffs, unless changes are made.

This system is costly and serves no true purpose, at least not in the general election. It's time for the legislature to consider amending this outdated practice in time for our next big vote in 2012.

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