What the Georgia congressional election shows about ranked-choice voting

Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District just completed a run-off election for the vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The record of that race reveals much relevant to the consideration of ranked-choice voting.

The first round of the election took place on April 18.  In a traditionally solidly Republican district, Democrat Jon Ossoff won 48 percent of the vote in a crowded field.  The second place finisher was Republican Karen Handel with 19 percent.

Most of the rest of the vote was divided among other Republicans.  That’s not surprising, because they were all vying to be the GOP winner or at least the survivor getting to a run-off in the belief, correct as it turned out, that a Republican would hold the naturally GOP district.

If Georgia used the Maine system, with a plurality winner and no second round, Ossoff might have lost if the GOP had put up just one candidate, probably after holding a primary.  He might have won if there had been a third candidate.

The total participation in the April round was 192,569.

If Georgia used ranked-choice voting, it’s also possible the Republican candidate would have won.  She might have been the second choice of all of the other Republicans, giving her 98,196 to Ossoff’s Democratic 94,201 votes, composed of his own and the second choice votes of the other Democratic voters.  (There were a handful of independent voters, so numbers don’t exactly add up.)

Handel would have had 51 percent to Ossoff’s 49 percent.

But it is also possible that, with a plethora of GOP hopefuls, Handel might not have picked up enough second choice votes to win or to win by more than a plurality.  The only way she could win a majority if she did not get all the second-choice voters she needed was to simply dump some votes and voters from the count.

That’s how ranked-choice voting can work.  It can turn a real plurality into a phony majority by eliminating some voters.

But Georgia does not use ranked-choice voting.  In fact, no state does.  Like 10 other states, it uses a run-off.  It was held on June 20.

Handel won 52 percent of the vote and Ossoff held his 48 percent.  She won.

The number of participants was 259,486.  That’s 35 percent more than in the first round.  So much for any claim that run-offs inevitably have lower turnouts.  Run-offs can do better for participation and democracy than ranked-choice voting.

What does Georgia show that may be relevant to Maine’s consideration of voting?

First, the plurality system may produce a different result from either a run-off or ranked choice voting.  So the threshold question is whether Mainer wants to abandon plurality elections.  That’s probably the first question that ought to be put to voters, and that would require a constitutional amendment.

Second, if Maine voters want change, they should consider the widely used run-off as well as the new and untried ranked-choice voting.  After a favorable vote to amend the Constitution, they could make this choice.

Third, nobody is dropped from the voting process by the run-off system, but votes are eliminated in ranked-choice voting.

Fourth, ranked-choice voting is more costly than a run-off, according to the Secretary of State.

Fifth, the winner is selected after a clear contest between candidates by using either the plurality or the run-off, while the computer makes the choice, hidden from voters, in ranked-choice voting.  Plurality and run-offs depend on campaigns designed to convince voters not a short-cut counting system.

Finally, Mainers should avoid seeing the need for ranked-choice voting in terms of the elections of Gov. LePage or Gov. Baldacci.  Any change would last decades or centuries with unknown results.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.