By Bo Harmon
RepresentUs Campaign Advisor

December 12, 2022

If Georgia had Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), Tuesday’s runoff election for the U.S. Senate would not have been necessary. The state wouldn’t have had to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to hold a lower-turnout election, candidates wouldn’t have had to spend millions more dollars campaigning, and Georgia voters wouldn’t have been subjected to countless attack ads and candidate emails.

Now that the election is over, it’s time for Georgia elected officials in both parties to take a long hard look at IRV to improve their elections. And because the political winds in Georgia seem to be aligning toward making a change, there’s a real chance we could see IRV in the Peach State sooner rather than later.

Georgia’s runoff system

Georgia is one of only two states in the country to hold runoff elections for general election contests. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote in the general, the two candidates with the most votes advance to a runoff.

Historically, runoff elections are not the greatest examples of democracy in action. First and foremost, voter turnout is almost always lower. Despite record-breaking turnout, the Georgia Senate runoff was no exception, with about 400,000 fewer Georgia voters turning out.

Runoffs are also a waste of taxpayer money. In Georgia, taxpayers were on the hook for $75 million to hold a lower-turnout election. Both sides spent $400 million on the race, making it the second-most expensive Senate campaign in American history. They’re also inefficient – especially when IRV is an option. If the state had IRV, more Georgians’ voices would have been heard and we’d have known the outcome a month ago.

What’s so good about Instant Runoff Voting?

IRV, also commonly called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), is a simple change to our elections that reduces the power of parties and politicians and increases the power of the voters. Already in place in more than 50 cities, counties and states across the country, this allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference on a single ballot.

One of the hallmarks of RCV is that it requires candidates to secure a majority of the vote to win. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. That candidates’ second-place votes are then redistributed to the other candidates. This process repeats until someone gets a majority.

At the end of the day, RCV gives voters better choices, better representation, and more accountable government.

Does RCV benefit either political party?

Despite false claims from politicians, RCV doesn’t help or hurt one party over the other. Typically, the majority party in a particular place opposes RCV because their candidates win under the existing system. They don’t want to do anything that threatens their hold on power. On the other hand, the minority party often supports RCV because – why not?

This is the same dynamic when it comes to partisan gerrymandering. The party that controls the map-drawing process is fine with gerrymandering because they benefit from it. In the state next door, if the same party is in the minority, they are likely to protest how unfair gerrymandering is.

In Nevada, high-profile members of both parties opposed an initiative on the ballot this year that would implement nonpartisan primaries and RCV. Voters passed it anyway because they recognized the power grab for what it was.

Georgia could be different

Sometimes though, conditions are right for RCV to gain cross-partisan support. That’s exactly what’s happening in Georgia. We’re seeing a unique set of circumstances in which both parties are finding immediate political reasons to adopt RCV.

First, let’s rewind to the 2020 presidential election. Georgia had two Republican U.S. senators: David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Georgia Republicans also had total control in state government. Former President Donald Trump narrowly lost Georgia, and both Senate races went to a runoff because no candidate received a majority of the vote. In both cases, conservative or libertarian candidates won enough votes to deny either candidate a majority.

The outcome of the 2020 Georgia runoffs was critical because the balance of power in the U.S. Senate was at stake. But because of the low-turnout nature of runoff elections (plus President Trump’s lies about election fraud), more than 250,000 Republicans who voted in the general election didn’t turn out for the runoff. As a result, Democrats won both seats – and the U.S. Senate majority.

If Georgia had RCV in 2020, those 250,000-plus Republican votes in the general election would have counted. It’s reasonable to assume that Republicans would have been the second-choice candidate of voters who selected a conservative independent or libertarian in the general election. Therefore, it’s not hard to imagine that Trump would likely have carried the state and both Republicans would have been reelected to the Senate, tipping the balance of power.

Recognizing this, many Georgia Republicans began supporting RCV. There’s already a bill that has multiple GOP cosponsors in both the state house and senate. After this week’s runoff, interest has only increased. A bill to allow RCV for municipal elections almost passed the legislature in 2021.

By switching to RCV, Georgia can avoid holding any more unnecessary expensive elections, and more voters will have a say in who represents them. Here at RepresentUs, we’ll be doing all we can to make this vision a reality.

Contributors: Anh-Linh Kearney, RepresentUs Research Analyst


RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.