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Our Views: High cost, low turnout should end Georgia runoffs
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Last week, our state was the last one left in the nation where voters were asked to trudge back to the polls one more time to settle three statewide races.

Georgia's runoff rule stipulates that to be elected in a primary or general election, a candidate must earn 50 percent of the vote plus one, Anything less and a second vote is held three weeks later.

So after the whole buildup to the Nov. 4 election, we had to it all again after every other state (except Minnesota, which is still recounting its votes, a la Florida 2000) had elected its leaders and moved on to transitions and governance.

That's like asking the two teams who play in the Super Bowl to play again three weeks later because the winning team didn't beat the point spread.

The runoff forced a half dozen candidates for the U.S. Senate, Public Service Commission and state Court of Appeals to dig deeper into their war chests and get back on the trail, a grueling three-week extension to an already exhausting process.

It also meant a public suffering severe election fatigue had to endure three more weeks of negative TV ads and annoying automated phone calls from everyone in the political universe, Even as the yard signs were covered with leaves and the campaign buttons stored in the closet as souvenirs, the campaign dragged on.

It also kept election workers busy before the Thanksgiving break. They had to crank the machines back up for early voting in advance of Tuesday's runoff day. All that adds an extra expense to local government budgets at a time when few can afford it.

In Hall County, the extra expense for a runoff ranges between $34,000 and $45,000, depending on turnout, according to Charlotte Sosebee-Hunter, interim elections director. Multiply that statewide and that's quite a price tag for what usually results in a light turnout.

And it was again. On Tuesday, some 1.6 million fewer voters turned out for the runoff than voted on Election Day. The 2004 runoff vote for one state court seat drew fewer than a quarter million voters but cost the state millions to conduct.

This time, many young people and first-time voters energized by the presidential race may have decided to stay home. Some seniors who have trouble getting around may not have wanted to venture out into the cold.

Nor should they have to. By runoff day, everyone was so sick of the campaign even the most politically active were ready to be done with it.

This is nonsense. Georgia natives may be accustomed to this archaic system, but folks from other states just shake their heads and wonder why we do this. Do we have an answer?

The runoff system goes back to a day when Democrats held a monopoly in state government. In order to keep a Republican - or in some cases, a black primary candidate - from being elected, the majority party instituted the runoff rule to keep candidates from being chosen with less than half the votes in a multicandidate field.

The rule comes into play often in primaries when multiple candidates seek their parties' nominations. It effects the general election when third-party hopefuls, usually Libertarians, can earn just enough votes to keep the winner shy of the 50 percent mark.

That was the case in 1992, when Democratic incumbent Sen. Wyche Fowler earned the most votes on Election Day but wound up losing a runoff to Republican challenger Paul Coverdell. After that election, Democrats lowered the runoff barrier to 45 percent, but Republicans re-upped it to 50 percent when they took control earlier this decade.

Yet the rule nearly came back to bite the GOP in the fanny this time when incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss finished a handful of votes below 50 percent on Nov. 4 despite beating Democrat Jim Martin by 3 percentage points, forcing him to win again in a runoff, this time by 15 points.

With the Senate race as the one undecided contest left in the country, some heavy hitters descended on our state to campaign for their party stalwarts. Bill Clinton, Al Gore and others came to Georgia for Martin; John McCain, Sarah Palin and other big GOP names stumped for Chambliss.

Their interest was in the Democrats' bid to gain a 60-seat super majority in the Senate that could stop filibusters, which likely will come into play over potential Supreme Court appointments.

As it turned out, the Senate race was the only thing that brought presidential hopefuls to our state, since the major players didn't drop by much during the fall campaign. We're still waiting for a visit from newly elected president Barack Obama, who spent enough ad money here to earn 47 percent of the vote and might have pushed McCain in Georgia with a few stopovers. But come runoff time, he wisely decided to focus on his transition and not stick his neck out for a doomed candidate, as Clinton did to his regret for Fowler in '92.

It's plain to see that runoffs benefit no one politically, since both parties have been burned by them in recent years. They're expensive, labor-intensive and voters would just as soon cast one ballot that decides the thing.

So why keep it around? That's a question we should ask our legislators as they head back into session in January. The state budget and other concerns come first, but it's hard to see much public support for keeping the runoff rule intact. At the very least, the state could pursue the "instant runoff" option by which voters rank their choices in a multicandidate field and if one doesn't win a majority, the second choices kick in.

It's hard enough these days to wrap up an election by early November in an age of disputed ballots, voting abnormalities and squadrons of lawyers parachuting into every close race. Let's do away with our dated runoff system and quit making it even worse.

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