This "Old Scribbler" asked Dan O'Connor of the House Research Office at the State Capitol to give us the history of major state runoffs in Georgia.
Without a high profile race on the ballot next Tuesday such as governor or U.S. Senate, and with many persons more likely having the holidays on their mind than voting, voters who show up at the polls tomorrow are unlikely to find any long lines. Still, even with the low profile of these judicial races, it is important to make your voice known in these contests for the state's highest and second-highest courts.
Leading the ballot will be the contest for justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, featuring incumbent David Nahmias and attorney Tammy Lynn Adkins. Also to be voted on statewide is a seat on the Georgia Court of Appeals, for which attorney Antoinette "Toni" Davis and appellate lawyer Chris McFadden are vying. There will also be runoffs for four superior court judges in various circuits in the state, and some local contests here and there, such as a mayoral runoff in the state's third largest city, Columbus.
The general election runoff has had a varied history in Georgia, one largely unknown to voters until 1992, when the three-percent showing of Libertarian candidate Jim Hudson forced then-Senator Wyche Fowler into a runoff with Republican Paul Coverdell. In the runoff that followed three weeks after that year's general election, Coverdell edged Fowler by just over a percentage point.After that election, the Democrats, then in control of the General Assembly, changed the majority-vote requirement so that a candidate only needed a minimum of 45-percent (a plurality, not a majority) of the vote to prevail statewide in a general election with three or more candidates. Many Democrats thought this change, dubbed the "Fowler Law," saved a U.S. Senate seat for the Democrats back in 1996, when Democrat Max Cleland prevailed over Republican Guy Millner by just a 49-48 percent margin to fill the seat vacated by veteran Democrat Sam Nunn. In that contest, Libertarian Jack Cashin rolled up nearly four-percent of the vote, much of that coming from GOP-heavy counties such as Cobb and Gwinnett. Had the majority-vote requirement been in effect that cycle, many Democrats speculated that Cleland would have lost in a subsequent runoff, given the propensity of many black voters not to vote in runoffs. But under the then-existing 45-percent law, Cleland's 49-percent was enough to earn him the seat.
After the 2004 general election, in which the GOP won control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction, the majority-vote requirement for the general election was reinstated. The change paid dividends for the GOP, as in 2006, Republican Chuck Eaton defeated incumbent Democrat David Burgess for a seat on the Public Service Commission. So low-profile was that race that barely 215,000 of the state's 4.4 million active registered voters showed up for that runoff, a turnout of just under five percent of the state's registered voters. The turnout in Cobb for that runoff was only 3 percent, with less than 10,000 of the county's near-347,000 active registered voters returning for that last election of 2006.
Two years ago, Georgia's general election runoff attracted national attention when Senator Chambliss just narrowly missed a majority in the first round against Democrat Jim Martin, again thanks to Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley. After the substantial losses Republicans suffered at the polls in the general election across the country, Republicans were looking for any trace of good news afterward. The GOP got its wish when Chambliss swept past Martin by a 57-43 percent margin in that runoff, in which 41-percent of the state's active registered voters participated. Cobb, which gave Chambliss 64-percent in the runoff, had an even higher turnout rate, at 46-percent, a substantial improvement over the mere three percent who showed up for the 2006 PSC runoff.
With polls earlier this fall indicating it was unlikely that Democrat Roy Barnes could win a majority in the Nov. 2 general election a few weeks ago, Democrats prior to that election held hope that Republican Nathan Deal would be forced into a post-Thanksgiving runoff with Barnes. Indeed, a number of polls had Deal under 50-percent the entire campaign season. However, the strong Republican tide obviously boosted the Gainesville Republican, enabling him to win 53-percent statewide to Barnes's 43-percent and four-percent for Libertarian John Monds.
Bill Kinney is associate editor of the Marietta Daily Journal.