Archive for December 2008

Runoffs in Georgia and Other States

December 5, 2008

On December 2, Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss won Georgia’s runoff for U. S. senator over the Democrat Jim Martin.  There was also a runoff for one of the five public service commission posts, which was won by the Republican despite his Democratic opponent being endorsed by the Libertarian also-ran.  The turnout on December 2 was a little over half of what it was on November 4.

Georgia is the only state that has runoff general elections in addition to party primaries.  Today the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had <a href=””>a piece</a> calling for the abolition of the runoff general election.

<em>”The runoff law was adopted in Georgia and other states throughout the South around the time of the Voting Rights Act, when white politicians feared blacks would rally behind a single candidate…”</em>

No other Southern state has had runoff general elections, and the adoption of Georgia’s provision had nothing to do with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  It is instead a by-product of the 1966 election of the Democrat Lester Maddox as governor, when Republican congressman Bo Callaway got more votes than Maddox but less then 50 percent.  Georgia law then specified that, in that circumstance, the House of Representatives would decide the race, and the heavily Democratic House elected Maddox.

Circa 1993, Georgia’s legislature lowered the threshold for avoiding a runoff general election from 50-plus percent to 45 percent.

<em>”That 45 percent threshold stood until Republicans gained control of the General Assembly in 2004 and pushed it back to a required majority of 50 percent plus one.”</em>

<em>”All but eight states decide elections based simply on which candidate gets the most votes.”</em>

The article is evidently referring here to the runoff (or second) primary.  Mississippi was the first to adopt this device, and some eleven states now use it, all of them in the South except for Kentucky and Oklahoma.  In the early 1900s, after states began requiring parties to hold primaries, almost all elections in the South were decided in the Democratic primary; thus a second primary was needed to ensure that no one was elected with a small plurality of the vote.

<em>”There may be valid reasons for holding on to a runoff system in local elections, especially those that are nonpartisan and tend to attract more crowded fields.”</em>

It sounds like at least part of Georgia’s localities use nonpartisan elections, in which there are no party primaries, and all candidates run in the same election (these are popularly called “open primaries” in Mississippi).  In such elections, it’s a good idea to have runoffs when no candidate gets 50-plus percent in the first round.

The Mississippi Constitution, ratified in 1890, says that, in order to be elected to a statewide office, a candidate must (1) get 50-plus percent of the vote, AND (2) carry at least 62 of the 122 districts in the state House of Representatives.  Otherwise, the House chooses between the top two vote-getters the following January.

This provision was adopted mainly to prevent blacks from getting elected.  Ironically, most blacks in the legislature opposed the last bill that would have abolished the provision.

The only other state with a similar requirement is Vermont.  When no candidate for a statewide office gets 50-plus percent, the decision is made by a joint session of both houses of the legislature.

Even in the states which do not mandate 50-plus percent for winning a general election, most officials are indeed elected with more than 50 percent.


Another Mayor Johnson for Jackson

December 4, 2008

I don’t know Daren Bourns, but I can tell from reading his blog posts that he and I are on the same wave length.  Today The Clarion-Ledger ran <a href=””>his post</a> handicapping next year’s race for mayor of Jackson (one thing I noticed was that the paper is quite liberal in changing what he writes when transferring it to the print edition).  Bourns commends former police Chief Robert Johnson, a possible mayoral candidate. 

I am also an admirer of Robert Johnson’s.  The turning point for me with incumbent Mayor Frank Melton was when he attacked Johnson and blamed him for the current crime problem in the capital city.

<em>Former Police Chief Robert Johnson was the best police chief [amen!] among a [cabal] of 50 or so passing through a revolving door. … Based on the possible [mayoral] candidates so far, he is the best of the lot.</em>

You may recall that Robert Johnson was appointed chief by former Mayor Kane Ditto.  Harvey Johnson took office as mayor in July 1997, and it took him some nine months to determine that Robert Johnson was allegedly “not a team player” and to fire him.

<em>Many of us made a mistake three years ago [in voting for Frank Melton for mayor]. I will not make that mistake over three months from now.</em>

The party primaries will be held on the first Tuesday in May, and any necessary runoff primaries will occur two weeks later.  The general election will be on the first Tuesday in June.

<em>I would like [Robert] Johnson to tell me his views on certain issues…</em>

Bourns then lists nine issues that concern him.  One of these is the need for a “comprehensive plan for bolstering the police force.”  Who better for accomplishing this and fighting crime than a successful former police chief?

Robert Johnson is very articulate and has a lot of sincerity.  If he decides to take the plunge into elective politics, however, I suggest that he needs to start smiling more (but, PLEASE, not as much as Harvey Johnson!).

While we’re on the subject:  Why the hell do we need party primaries in municipal elections?  Is there a Republican method of fixing potholes?  Or a Democratic method of cleaning out ditches?  We could give the voters greater choice by changing to nonpartisan municipal elections, popularly called “open primaries.”  This would also save the taxpayers money and relieve the candidates of the aggravation and expense of– potentially– conducting three campaigns.

More Interplay Between Jim and Me

December 4, 2008

<em>Jim Riley and I had another exchange at <a href=””>Ballot Access News</a>, a portion of which follows.  He is a strong advocate of a Louisiana-style “top two” (or “open primary”)[1], and we had been discussing the possibility of a state using the “top two” in the presidential election, which no state currently does.  We were talking about the role of the parties’ national conventions when he changed the subject somewhat.</em>

<strong>Jim</strong>:  I would eliminate public funding, and remove any purported right of those conventions to nominate candidates for State offices.

<strong>Steve</strong>:  I agree on the public funding, since it empowers government to take a citizen’s money by force and give it to a candidate whom that citizen does not support. I favor no limits on private contributions… and immediate disclosure on the Internet.

I assume you mean STATE conventions nominating for state offices. Among the few states that still use conventions, primaries are used in some circumstances and conventions in others. I sometimes think it was a mistake to replace conventions with party primaries, but primaries are here to stay, and the convention will continue to be a nominating option where the state approves it.

<em>[Jim comments that a state has no business financing the activities– such as primaries– of political parties, since they are private organizations.]</em>

<strong>Steve:</strong>:  In 1995, a federal appeals court said that, when the state requires parties to nominate by primary, the state must pay for those primaries (Republican Party v. Faulkner County, Arkansas). If a state stopped requiring and paying for primaries, the parties would be very unlikely to nominate by primary, because of the expense.  Then the voters would raise hell; so, as a practical matter, states will continue  mandating and funding party primaries.

In every state– except Washington– where a “top two” (or “open primary”) measure has been on the ballot for state and/or congressional offices, the voters have rejected it. Most recently, nearly two-thirds of Oregonians defeated that terrible idea.

I’d like to see some state try this: have one big election, with all the candidates on the same ballot, on the first Tuesday in November, and use <a href=””>instant runoff voting (IRV)</a>. Citizens would only have to vote once, and officials would always be elected with 50-plus percent of the vote (the parties, of course, would still be free to endorse candidates in advance of the election).


[1] All candidates, including independents, run in the same election.  The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, proceed to the runoff.