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21st Century runoffs feature some interesting twists

December 1, 2009

(Updated with Tuesday's results) This year’s mayor’s races in Houston and Atlanta have added some interesting twists to an old political question: Who’s helped, and who’s hurt, by election runoffs?

Because runoffs are almost exclusively a facet of politics in the South, critics have charged that they work against African-American minorities, making it impossible for them to prevail even when the white vote in an election is initially fragmented.

That wasn’t their original intent, says the University of Georgia’s Charles Bullock, who co-authored “Runoff Elections in the United States” with Loch K. Johnson. Blacks had already been effectively disenfranchised when most of the Southern states adopted runoffs in the early decades of the 20th Century, he says. Their purpose, in the South’s old one-party system, was to prevent any one faction (such as the Ku Klux Klan) from gaining control over the Democratic establishment.

Whoever they were originally intended to advantage, it’s fairly certain no one could have anticipated elections like those being held this year, even a decade or so ago.

If there had been no runoff, white women candidates – City Controller Annise Parker in Houston and City Council member Mary Norwood in Atlanta – would already be the winners in both races. Not only did the runoff system keep alive the hopes of two black candidates – former city attorney Gene Locke in Houston and state Sen. Kasim Reed in Atlanta – but their prospects have brightened considerably in the second phase of the election process.

Reed was a distant third – at one point polling only 8 percent – until only a couple of weeks before the first-round election in Atlanta. But in the second round, he has pulled into a virtual tie with Norwood in the final polls before Tuesday's runoff election, and claimed a 758-vote victory Tuesday night. 

Locke also was a distant third in a race which had been expected to come down to a runoff between Parker and City Councilman Peter Brown. He, too, has gain ground in that race, for which early voting started Monday. The Houston runoff election will be held Saturday, Dec. 12.

 In last week’s KHOU/KUHF poll, the only one since the first-round election not conducted by either campaign, Parker led Locke by 37 percent to 34 percent. Given a 4.4 percent margin of error, that made the race a statistical dead heat.

Another factor in both these runoffs which no one was thinking about a few years ago is sexual orientation.

Parker is lesbian, and while gay and lesbian voters make up about 5 to 6 percent of Houston’s voters, they were probably 10 to 12 percent of the vote in the very low-turnout election on Nov. 3, said pollster Dick Murray, who teaches at the University of Houston. Locke struggled to pick up solid African-American support in the first round, but is expected to get stronger support from those voters in the runoff, a race filled with unusual twists. It’s a contest Murray believes has no parallel in any previous major election in this country.

“They’re both Democrats, and they’re both progressive, but they sure look different,” Murray observed.

Parker is likely to pick up most of the whites who voted in the first round for the third-place finisher Brown, while Locke is expected to pick up most of Brown’s African-American supporters. Although Locke, like Parker, is a liberal Democrat, he’s also expected to get the votes of many of those who supported the fourth-place finisher, conservative Ray Morales, because they are seen as social conservatives likely to object to Parker’s sexual orientation.

That leaves more business-oriented, mainstream Republicans as the possible key to the race.

“The jump-ball voters are those moderate Republicans,” Murray said.

In Atlanta, the jump-ball voters could have been gays and lesbians.

Reed was a leader in the fight against the gay marriage amendment in the Georgia legislature, but while he opposes putting a ban in the state Constitution, he only supports civil unions. Norwood supports gay marriage, and in the final televised debate Sunday made note of the support of her step-daughter, Dorsey Norwood, who is lesbian.

Reed, in addition to touting his legislative record, charged Norwood with skipping a vote on pension benefits for domestic partners who are city employees. She has characterized the vote as a simple procedural matter.

The competition for gay and lesbian votes between the two candidates has been intense, and the last campaign piece from Norwood, which hit mailboxes Monday, contrasts her differences with Reed on the marriage issue, complete with a quote from Dorsey Norwood and her partner, Melody Durrenberger.

But Reed also picked up support from those voters, white and black, who picked the third-place finisher, Lisa Borders, in the first round -- enough to pull off a major upset Tuesday night. 



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