In Georgia, easier ballot access, but with conditions

In Georgia, easier ballot access, but with conditions

Among the topics that the Georgia General Assembly may deal with this year is whether to make it easier for additional parties to get on the general election ballot.  Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians are entitled to appear on Georgia ballots.  Other parties, including the Green Party, have never amassed the number of signatures to get on the Georgia ballot.  The last example of a fourth entry on a Georgia ballot stemmed from Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential candidacies in 1992 and 1996.

The argument in favor of facilitating the appearance of additional parties on the ballot is that it would expand the choices available to voters.  Having a wider range of candidates competing in the general election might result in discussion of otherwise overlooked policy alternatives.

Making it easier for candidates who identify as Greens, Socialist Workers, Independents or something else to appear on Georgia ballots would not likely see these individuals register much greater success than Libertarians who hold no public offices.  So from the perspective of whether easier access would result in greater partisan diversity in the General Assembly or Georgia’s congressional delegation, the answer is negative.  Without other structural changes and a massive reorientation of voter preferences, any idea that the General Assembly could have the variety of parties found in nations like Belgium, Israel, or even Germany is far-fetched.  Therefore why not embrace the proposed change?

The legislature should hesitate to change the ballot access requirement without thinking through how the state’s unique election requirement might cause problems.  Only Georgia requires that legislators, federal officials, statewide officers and even county officials win general elections with a majority.  In other states, even those with a majority requirement for nomination, with very few exceptions a plurality suffices in general elections.  While opening up the ballot to other parties would not likely see representatives of additional parties holding office, even polling small shares of the vote could make the necessity of general election runoffs more likely.

Georgia has infrequently had statewide runoffs with the two highest profile instances being senatorial choices in 1992 and 2008.  In December 2018 runoffs decided who would serve as secretary of state and on the Public Service Commission.  Stacey Abrams came within some 17,000 votes of forcing a gubernatorial runoff.  Had a conservative, perhaps a candidate identifying with the Freedom Caucus in Congress, competed for governor that might have siphoned off enough votes from Brian Kemp to have forced a runoff.  Alternatively a Green candidate might have left Abrams further behind Kemp.

If the legislature decides to give serious consideration to modifying the ballot access requirement, it might pair that change with a modification of the majority vote requirement by moving to the instant runoff, also known as the alternative vote and ranked choice voting.  Instant runoffs have been adopted by about a dozen cities and the state of Maine.  Some states that have majority-vote requirements in party primaries use ranked choice voting on absentee ballots sent to military personnel serving overseas.  Where the instant runoff is in place, voters can rank order their preferences among candidates.  It is permissible to vote traditionally and select a single candidate.  But voters can also indicate the acceptability of multiple candidates by ranking their choices.  For example, a voter’s first preference might be the Libertarian candidate with the Republican nominee being the second choice and an Independent candidate ranked third.

When tabulating preferences, ballots are allocated by voter’s first choices.  If one candidate gets a majority of the vote the outcome is decided.  If no one has a majority then the ballots cast for the least successful candidate are examined and awarded to those voters’ second choices.  The process of eliminating the least successful remaining candidate and reallocating votes to alternative choices continues until one candidate has a majority vote or options available for allocating choices are exhausted.

Replacing the traditional runoff with the instant runoff has several advantages.  First, it eliminates another trip to the polls and that saves money.  Staging a statewide election costs Georgia taxpayers millions of dollars.  A second advantage is that a larger share of the electorate participates in choosing the winner.  Runoffs usually attract a smaller electorate than participated in the previous election.   Turnout in the 1992 Coverdell – Fowler Senate runoff fell by almost a million voters with the runoff attracting 56 percent as many votes as in the November general election.  In the 2018 secretary of state runoff in which Brad Raffensperger beat John Barrow, turnout dropped by 2.4 million or 62 percent.  More dramatically, in the 2006 PSC runoff between Chuck Eaton and David Burgess, turnout fell by almost 90 percent.  With the traditional runoff a relatively small share of the electorate figures in the decisive choice while with the instant runoff the ballots of the much larger electorate decide the winner.  The small electorate for a runoff points up a third advantage of the instant runoff.  The electorate will be more representative than the committed partisans who disproportionately return to the polls for a traditional runoff.

A fourth advantage of the instant runoffs accrues to the general electorate.  Voters who had long since tired of seeing hundreds of television ads and receiving scores of mail pieces and dozens of unwanted telephone calls would not have to endure an extension of those activities should the winner be picked in an instant runoff.

Jurisdictions that have implemented the instant runoff have found that voters adapt to the system fairly easily.  Those who choose to can vote for a single candidate as in the past.  Some bright engineer should be able to program Georgia’s new voting equipment to do the ballot reallocations.

Coupling easier ballot access with the instant runoff would allow voters a wider array of choices while also easing the burden on voters by eliminating a round of elections yet still preserve the requirement that winners display a broad base of support by attracting a majority.

Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Distinguished University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.  The third edition of his co-authored Georgia Politics in a State of Change has just been published.