Georgia voters go to polls again

Georgia voters go to polls again

August 19th, 2012 by Joy Lukachick Smith and Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

If Catoosa County were in Tennessee, instead of Georgia, Larry Black would be its new sheriff.

Black racked up 3,808 votes in the July 31 primary election -- almost twice as many as his closest competitor, Gary Sisk, with 1,956 votes.

While Black won by a big margin, it wasn't decisive. Five Republican candidates sought to replace retiring Sheriff Phil Summers.

Black received more than 43 percent of the vote, but to win in Georgia, candidates need 50 percent plus one vote. That's different from Tennessee and most other states, where the candidate with the most votes, or a "plurality," wins.

So now Black and Sisk are battling it out to win the Tuesday runoff election on the Republican ballot.

The tradition of runoff elections dates back to the early 1900s in Georgia and other Southern states. Primaries and runoffs were introduced to replace old systems of party nominations such as conventions in the solidly Democratic South, said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a Maryland-based voting reform think tank.

"The South was such a one-party area for so long that winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to victory," Richie stated in an email.

Runoffs have advantages, such as producing a clear winner.

"Fifty-seven percent of the majority didn't vote for [Black]," Sisk said. "In the runoff, people can really dig into the two candidates and see who they would like to be the next sheriff."

But runoff elections have shortcomings, too.

University of Georgia political science professor Charles S. Bullock III, who co-wrote "Runoff Elections in the United States" in 1991 with Loch K. Johnson, said runoffs tend to have low voter participation.

"Yes, it's a majority. But it's a majority of a shrunken electorate," he said.

Voter interest

Low turnout hasn't been an issue in the hotly contested Catoosa sheriff's race. About 1,500 voters cast ballots during the week of early voting in the runoff, compared to about 3,000 during three weeks of early voting in the primary election.

But in Walker County, Ga., only a dozen voters have cast early ballots in the only race on the ballot: the Republican runoff for Georgia House District 1 where John Deffenbaugh faces Alan Painter.

Runoffs are scaled-down versions of regular elections, so they still cost counties money. For example, the sheriff's runoff will cost Catoosa County about $15,000, and Walker County will spend about $10,000 on its one race.

Runoff candidates also must spend more money and keep plowing ahead after the primary. And because voter participation drops off, a hardcore handful of voters can decide things.

That happened in 1996, when Herbert "Buzz" Franklin Jr. was first elected as district attorney for the four-county Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit.

Franklin faced David Hentz, of Chickamauga, in a runoff. Voters in his home county of Dade came out heavily for Franklin, said Ron Goulart, Fort Oglethorpe city manager.

"The people in Dade County, they vote and they vote for their people," Goulart said. "Dade just killed [Hentz]."

Being from Dade County may give Deffenbaugh an advantage Tuesday. He's a native son in a county where officials expect high turnout because six races are on the ballot. Painter is from Walker County.

If voters haven't had the time to study the race, Painter said, "I guess maybe there is a natural tendency to vote for someone who lives near to them."

While candidates need 50 percent plus one vote to win at the county level, Georgia cities can opt for a less-stringent threshold. For example, a candidate only needs to get 40 percent of the vote to win office in Fort Oglethorpe, which saves the city money on runoff elections.

"Oh yeah, it helps considerably," Goulart said.