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Run The Runoffs

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In a little over a month, there will be a special runoff election in Georgia between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. Despite getting within a couple points of winning outright, there is a pretty decent chance that Handel, who didn’t even clear 20% in the general, will overtake him. If this happens, there is a good chance we’re going to hear some commentary that runoffs are bad and, indeed, racist. I sincerely hope Democrats resist this temptation.

The argument for “runoffs are racist” is pretty straightforward. The only place they really exist is in the South, and when the South has a peculiar institution, it’s rarely good. Sure enough, one of the early reasons for having a runoff was to prevent African-Americans from electing people. Boom. That settles it, right? Southern institution? Check. History with racism? Check. They should get with the times and do what the rest of the country does, right? Ossoff should have been the legitimate winner!

Not exactly. And even if Georgia didn’t have runoffs, there’s no guarantee that Ossoff would have won last month anyway.

There is an argument in favor of doing away with runoffs, and that argument is that political party officials should have more rather than less power. When special elections occur in jurisdictions without runoffs, the political parties usually get together and select candidates and so you usually have a two-person race. We saw this just recently in Kansas. The #BanPrimaries part of me loves the notion, but the systems guy just can’t get on board with it. In this case, the party establishment would likely have chosen Handel anyway, giving us the exact race we’re looking forward to on June 20. If Handel wins that one, there’s a solid chance she would have won the first one.

The counterargument to this is that runoffs tend to have lower turnout, and lower turnout tends to favor Republicans. This is indeed an argument against runoffs and in favor, perhaps of ordered balloting, or Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). In that case, everybody who voted in the first round would have had an easy time voting between the two primary candidates because it all would have been on one ballot. If we assume that everybody who voted for a Republican would have voted for Handel and everybody who voted for a Democrat would have voted for Ossoff, then Handel would have won. That’s not necessarily a safe assumption, however. In fact, I would probably give the edge to Ossoff due to ordering fatigue as Republicans get tired of numbering all the way to 11 for each of the 11 candidates. Some would have simply done three or four and never would have gotten to Handel. While almost all the Democrats were with Ossoff already. On the other hand, knowing this, the Republicans may have found a way to prevent there from being 11 candidates to begin with.

While I am generally fond of IRV, in cases like this I do favor traditional runoffs. Instant Runoffs are best for elections where you have 3-5 candidates, and the more candidates you have the worse IRV does because people lose track of all of the candidates and the major candidates may not get the scrutiny they should. This would also have been an issue in the Republican primaries, where I did favor IRV but only due to the state-by-state nature of the system which makes traditional runoffs harder to digest. If we ever were to have a national primary, I’d prefer two-round voting of some sort.

The proper way to look at this is through democratic process rather than who it benefits. From a democratic-process standpoint, the desire of the south to avoid allowing a minority segment of the population from choosing the winner is reasonable. The same runoff system that prevented them from doing so prevented the KKK from choosing in Arkansas. Runoffs would also prevent the National Front from taking power in France without a much broader support base than they presently have. It would likely have prevented LePage from taking office in Maine. It might have prevented Rick Perry’s 2006 re-election. It could have prevented Todd Akin from being the Republican nominee for the Senate. Some of these outcomes you may approve of, some you may not, but when you change a process you don’t get to pick and choose when it applies, usually.

There are things you can do to tweak the results one way or another. California and Louisiana both have blanket primaries, of sorts. California holds theirs during primary season which allows the runoff to coincide with the general election calendar. Louisiana holds their blanket primary on election day, leaving the runoff a greater risk (and, to some, perhaps, a benefit) of being a low-turnout affair. And obviously some states make voting easier than others. How these issues with runoffs are Handeld, however, is a different question than whether or not runoffs should occur. And they are separate questions from the special election runoffs in particular.

The strongest argument against runoffs is the turnout issue, which both IRV and plurality victor systems avoid. Related to that is that it contributes to ballot fatigue. This is an issue for almost all special elections, though certainly moreso for two-state elections than one. And though it’s worth paying money for democracy, they usually do tend to cost money. To the extent that we are concerned about these things, however, I would propose a different solution: Abolish special elections. Let state parties choose placeholder congresspersons until the next regularly scheduled election.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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56 thoughts on “Run The Runoffs

  1. I’m going to take umbridge with the excerpt for this post:

    “It’s not often, but sometimes the South is right and the rest of the country is wrong.”

    We’re right about a whole bunch of things… And regarding a lot of the things that they say we’re wrong about, it seems like the rest of the country has the same problems, they are just better at hiding it.

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    • That’s fair. I was mostly thinking of it in terms if the South has its institutions set up one way and the rest of the country another way, the latter is probably better. That there was a racial history behind this, for example, is the opposite of surprising. The South was a really bad place when a lot of these decisions were made.

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              • Ummm no. I said Mike is correct on the general point. Just saying Baltimore is southern. But feel free to argue everything and find confrontation everywhere.

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                  • The easy answer is that the NFL is bass ackward in many ways. The fact that it is in the North practically proves my point that is the South.

                    The longer answer is that Baltimore used to be Cleavland which was in the same conference as the other North teams. Now of course Cleavland is Cleavland so all is right with the world.

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                    • My alternate NFL Divisions:

                      NFL Northern Lakes: Buffalo, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota
                      NFL Midwest: Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis
                      NFL Northeast: New England, Giants, Jets, Philadelphia
                      NFL Mid-Atlantic: Baltimore, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Washington
                      NFL California: Chargers, Rams, Oakland, San Francisco
                      NFL Southeast: Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami, Tennessee
                      NFL Gulf Coast: Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Tampa Bay
                      NFL Oh Just Fuck It: Arizona, Denver, Kansas City, Seattle

                      Now, if we went to 4 division of 8 teams, you could do:

                      NFL Big West: Seattle, San Fran, Oakland, LA, LA, Denver, Arizona, KC
                      NFL Deep South: Houston, Dallas, Tennessee, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Atlanta
                      NFL Rust Belt: Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Indy, Cinci, Cleveland
                      NFL East Coast: Buffalo, NE, Giants, Jets, Philly, Washington, Baltimore, Carolina

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      • I would love run offs for president.

        Why with run offs we would likely not be dealing with this trump mess.

        Having to clear 50% in each state or it is a head to head vs top 2 would prevent wasted third party votes etc.

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      • The Census Bureau, looking at a variety of factors, puts Kentucky in the South. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, looking at assorted business linkages, puts Kentucky in the South.

        My cluster analysis work using migration data places Kentucky in an “old Northwest Territory” region, driven largely by moves back and forth across the Ohio River at Cincinnati and Louisville. But I’m an outlier — for example, my software steadfastly refuses to create a unified Midwest that spans the Mississippi River.

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        • I am still confused by Kazzy mentioning NJ. Maybe he meant WV?

          Anyway, the Kentucky = South debate is an old one but generally-speaking most of the state identifies more as Southern. Louisville and Northern Kentucky are outliers and we are a bit more Midwestern (lots of German-Catholic roots).

          One of the more popular terms lately to describe KY, MD, VA, and even WV is Upland South and I think it’s as good as any.

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  2. I’d be for some kind of IRV offer or do what the French do and have the run-off be election be a week or two after the initial election, not separated by months.

    The more pressing electoral reforms I want to see are making election day a weekend instead of a Tuesday or have something that makes voting easier for the poor and/or people without much time. We do let states set their election processes a bit too much.

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    • How hard is voting now, you show up and vote? How much easier can we make it? Maybe a gov’t ride to the polling place and a gov’t minder to help you fill out your ballot?

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      • Do you have the tiniest bit of empathy for any argument or do you just dismiss anything and everything out of hand? If you are a lawyer, a particularly harsh prosecutor is the only thing that fits your profile.

        Voting can be easy and it can be made hard. You can make people travel to a handful of locations and wait for hours or you can have multiple locations and have short wait times. Not everyone can get off work to wait for hours especially people in wage & hour jobs. Professional jobs provide more “I have to do X and will be running late/leaving early coverage.”

        You can keep voting in strict hours of 9 AM to 5 PM or expand to give some time to people after work.

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        • Voting can be easy and it can be made hard. You can make people travel to a handful of locations and wait for hours or you can have multiple locations and have short wait times. Not everyone can get off work to wait for hours especially people in wage & hour jobs. Professional jobs provide more “I have to do X and will be running late/leaving early coverage.”

          All of which maybe true but is not necessary relevant. Every jurisdiction has only so many locations, machines and money etc. with which to conduct an election. Hopefully they use their they use their resources to enable the most people to vote.

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      • For me it’s a real PITA. I’m out on the road for 3-4 weeks at a time and only rarely home on that day. I’ve voted in person exactly once. And my state makes it a PITA to get absentee ballots as well thanks to Lt. Gov. Kris Kobach.

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      • In Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, if you’re registered the ballot shows up in your mailbox about three weeks before election day. Arizona’s permanent mail ballot list yields about 75% of all votes cast, California’s about 65%. In the three that have implemented full vote-by-mail, “should we keep it?” polls about 75% yes, across the political spectrum of voters.

        And you know something? It only increases turnout slightly. Off-year turnout is still miserable. What does increase turnout? A nice, juicy ballot initiative drives turnout way up anywhere in the West where such are common.

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      • How hard is voting now, you show up and vote?

        Depends on the place, doesn’t it? Some places aren’t super busy and you can vote on your way to or from work without much of a disruption in your day. Others have crazy wait times and you’ll end up taking a chunk of your day off of work. Still others allow voting by mail, which is pretty damned easy.

        I’m an able-bodied professional with a lot of control over my schedule and I still vote by mail every single time. If every jurisdiction had that option, I’d have zero pity for bad voter turnout. But as it is, we’re not exactly making it easy in a lot of cases. The benefit an individual gets from voting is pretty infinitesimal, so making it even slightly harder is likely to have noticeable effects on turnout.

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          • Voting on a Tuesday prevents fraud, whereas voting on a Sunday when God is busy watching all of the good people in church allows you to get away with all sorts of stuff on the sly.

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              • You’re not going to get any pushback from me. I’d like to see people get monthly statements the same way they get them for utilities. Itemize the top 10 or 20 expenditures and how much of their cash went to each one. That would probably save a ton of confusion since people on both sides of the aisle believe absolutely ridiculous things about taxes and where their money goes.

                But that still doesn’t say anything about whether making people take off work on a weekday and plod down to a random public building to vote makes any sense.

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                • It makes perfect sense if the goal is not “let the voice of We The People be heard” or even “to the polls ye sons of Freedom” but, as PJ said a while back “count those people as 3/5 of a person but don’t let them do 3/5 of the voting”.

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          • That deep Kansas probe that 45’s hot new fraud investigator spent millions on?

            Found maybe a double handful of in-person fraud cases. And the majority of them voted R.

            Expect it to be touted in the panel’s recommendation of Vote Suppression Best Practices. With the actual cite buried deep deep in a footnote, along with the other misrepresentations.

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  3. Abolish special elections. Let state parties choose placeholder congresspersons until the next regularly scheduled election.

    The House of Representatives is supposed to be the part of the federal government most directly accountable to the people. (In the initial design, it was the *only* part of the fed gov that was)

    Putting appointees – by party machines no less – undermines the entire basic premise of the House of Reps.

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      • Given enough antipathy towards the status quo, you can overcome a lot of gerrymandering – that’s how Tom Perriello won in central Virginia district that was in excess of R+5 iirc against literally a Goode ol boy.

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        • You can overcome a lot of things, if you get my meaning.

          It’s also not just a matter of gerrymandering, though that surely doesn’t help.

          Doubling the number of Reps and having more multi-member districts seems like it would be a good step in the right direction. And I think it could be done entirely through legislation.

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  4. “From a democratic-process standpoint, the desire of the south to avoid allowing a minority segment of the population from choosing the winner is reasonable.”

    Good argument against the electoral college, no?

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    • Ha! I was actually deliberate in my wording there for precisely that reason (ie saying such a desire was “reasonable” than that it was “right”). I do think the president should be chosen by popular vote, though also see virtue in the anti-majoritarian senate. So I’ve a mixed record on that.

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      • Without the impulse to count non-voting slaves for population that was blunted with the 3/5th’s compromise I don’t think the electoral college would have ended up happening.

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        • Probably not. But I doubt an at-large popular vote would have been agreed to either, given the founders’ fondness for state sovereignty (though that itself could be almost totally rooted in the same racism as the compromise).

          Possibly we would have gone parliamentarian, with the House (which of course was influenced by the slavery-based apportionment) electing the president (just as it does in the event that the Electoral College doesn’t supply a majority-winning candidate).

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