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Vacancies Often Create One Special Election Too Many

In the July 17 runoff election to fill a vacant House seat, voters in Georgia’s 10th district had the task of choosing between a Republican on one hand, and on the other hand a, well, Republican. Is it any surprise that turnout was 14 percent?

Athens’ Paul Broun was the “landslide” winner, having squeaked by with 394 votes more than his opponent, former state Sen. Jim Whitehead. Broun barely made the runoff, just making the cut with only 21 percent in the primary, putting him into the qualifying second place by a similarly tiny margin.

How did we find ourselves here? The untimely death of Rep. Charlie Norwood (R) in February required a nonpartisan special election to fill his seat, an election that would take all comers. Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike all ran in the same contest, as there were no primaries for parties to narrow the field and choose nominees.

At the close of polls in the June 19 election, none of the 10 candidates secured a majority of votes, necessitating a second runoff election between the top two candidates, both Republicans. The already low turnout for a special election dropped even lower because most Democrats saw little stake in the eventual winner, and Republicans knew both candidates were playing for the same team.

So much trouble, so much effort and so much expense to the people of Georgia — all for an election in which barely anyone did any actual voting.

Similar scenarios crop up every time there is a Congressional vacancy to be filled or when law mandates a runoff if no one has received a majority (as opposed to a mere plurality) of votes. Vacancies should be filled in a wise and timely fashion, and electing a Representative who wields majority support is likewise a worthy goal, but there needs to be a solution that addresses both of these concerns without all of the unnecessary expense and difficulty.

There is, in fact, a better way to reach these goals that can fill vacant seats more quickly and democratically and assure that the winner has the support of the majority. If instant runoff voting had been in place in Georgia, the district would have required only a single, simple election — a significant savings for taxpayers — and would have sharply reduced campaign finance demands on the candidates and their donors.

IRV is a ranked-choice voting method endorsed by the likes of USA Today, Robert’s Rules of Order and a growing number of League of Women Voters state groups. It also is advocated by figures such as Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Here’s how it works: Voters rank candidates in order of preference. Their favorite is ranked No. 1, their second favorite would be ranked No. 2, and so on down the line. If no candidate receives a majority of votes in the initial count, the election goes into an instant runoff. The weak candidates are eliminated — either at once, as in a runoff, or one at a time. If a voter’s first choice candidate is eliminated for lack of sufficient votes, that voter’s ballot counts toward their next-choice candidate on the ballot. This process repeats until someone emerges with a majority of votes in the runoff round.

Instead of initiating a costly “special-special” election, as was done in this case, voters would simply fill in their first, second and third choices (and so on) — all with one trip to the voting booth. It’s easier for the voters, encourages more voter engagement, reduces some of the money in politics and saves the state the time and expense of trying to coordinate runoff elections.

IRV is especially helpful to overseas voters, such as our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, who usually have little time to get a new runoff ballot in the mail and return it on time.

A side benefit of IRV is the elimination of the “spoiler problem.” Countless stories can be retold at the local and national level of voters being forced to choose between the “lesser of two evils.” In such races, voters often have a third choice but are afraid to vote for that choice for fear of accidentally electing their worst fear into office. By default, IRV makes it possible for voters to vote for a candidate instead of against one.

IRV also has been known to clean up the worst kind of mudslinging and dirty politics. A candidate still needs to earn first-choice support to win, but it becomes less wise to speak ill of your opponent’s character if they may require the second-choice votes of his or her supporters. Stories abound across the country where formerly dirty campaigns have cleaned up and become focused on the issues instead of throwing mud.

Less money spent, higher turnout and no “special-special” election needed. With IRV, the voters of Georgia’s 10th could have already had a Member of Congress in place working on the issues, one with the clear support of the majority.

Paul Fidalgo is communications director of FairVote. Diane Russell is the IRV director for FairVote.

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