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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Friday, December 05, 2008

Runoffs in Georgia and Other States

On December 2, Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss won Georgia's runoff for U. S. senator over the Democrat Jim Martin. There was also a runoff for one of the five public service commission posts, which was won by the Republican despite his Democratic opponent being endorsed by the Libertarian also-ran. The turnout on December 2 was a little over half of what it was on November 4.

Georgia is the only state that has runoff general elections in addition to party primaries. Today the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a piece calling for the abolition of the runoff general election.

"The runoff law was adopted in Georgia and other states throughout the South around the time of the Voting Rights Act, when white politicians feared blacks would rally behind a single candidate..."

No other Southern state has had runoff general elections, and the adoption of Georgia's provision had nothing to do with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It is instead a by-product of the 1966 election of the Democrat Lester Maddox as governor, when Republican congressman Bo Callaway got more votes than Maddox but less then 50 percent. Georgia law then specified that, in that circumstance, the House of Representatives would decide the race, and the heavily Democratic House elected Maddox.

Circa 1993, Georgia's legislature lowered the threshold for avoiding a runoff general election from 50-plus percent to 45 percent.

"That 45 percent threshold stood until Republicans gained control of the General Assembly in 2004 and pushed it back to a required majority of 50 percent plus one."

"All but eight states decide elections based simply on which candidate gets the most votes."

The article is evidently referring here to the runoff (or second) primary. Mississippi was the first to adopt this device, and some eleven states now use it, all of them in the South except for Kentucky and Oklahoma. In the early 1900s, after states began requiring parties to hold primaries, almost all elections in the South were decided in the Democratic primary; thus a second primary was needed to ensure that no one was elected with a small plurality of the vote.

"There may be valid reasons for holding on to a runoff system in local elections, especially those that are nonpartisan and tend to attract more crowded fields."

It sounds like at least part of Georgia's localities use nonpartisan elections, in which there are no party primaries, and all candidates run in the same election (these are popularly called "open primaries" in Mississippi). In such elections, it's a good idea to have runoffs when no candidate gets 50-plus percent in the first round.

The Mississippi Constitution, ratified in 1890, says that, in order to be elected to a statewide office, a candidate must (1) get 50-plus percent of the vote, AND (2) carry at least 62 of the 122 districts in the state House of Representatives. Otherwise, the House chooses between the top two vote-getters the following January.

This provision was adopted mainly to prevent blacks from getting elected. Ironically, most blacks in the legislature opposed the last bill that would have abolished the provision.

The only other state with a similar requirement is Vermont. When no candidate for a statewide office gets 50-plus percent, the decision is made by a joint session of both houses of the legislature.

Even in the states which do not mandate 50-plus percent for winning a general election, most officials are indeed elected with more than 50 percent.


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