Saturday, July 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: Georgia's ridiculous runoff shows why politics and big PAC money need reform

This is a tough month to be a fan of the Andy Griffith Show in Atlanta — especially if you don't care for politics. Millions of dollars have poured into next month's special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District runoff between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. Some estimate that $40 million will be spent before voters go to the polls on June 20. That would smash a record for the most spending in any single House race since 2012.

Nationally, the race has been viewed as a referendum on the Trump administration. Democrats sense momentum ahead of the 2018 midterms but would like to achieve an actual victory. Republicans want to defend the seat that launched Newt Gingrich and Tom Price, and which has stayed red since 1978.

Inside the district, however, voters have mostly viewed campaign ads. The campaigns and outside super PACs have so much money to burn that Atlanta's NBC affiliate, WATL, took the unusual step of adding a local newscast at 7 p.m. — and displaced Andy Griffith reruns until after the election.

According to Politico, nearly $30 million has been spent on TV ads alone — and there's still millions left over for mailers, radio ads targeting specific ethnic groups, and expensive get-out-the-vote efforts that have included free Lyft rides from college campuses to the polls.

It did not have to be this way. No candidate earned the necessary 50 percent in last month's 17-candidate "jungle primary," so Ossoff and Handel, as the top vote-getters, advanced to the runoff. Ossoff, a newcomer, came closest to a majority, with 48 percent of the vote. A majority of voters — 51 percent — backed one of the dozen Republican candidates, but spread those votes out so widely that Handel finished second with 19.8 percent.

But what if the citizens of Georgia's 6th had been able to rank their choices back in April — and, following Maine's lead, elected a new representative with an "instant runoff"? With this system, you don' have to ask everyone to come back and vote again — instead, you just ask them for their backup choices and count them if their first choice trails the field. Perhaps the 51 percent of voters who backed a Republican candidate would have formed a majority around Handel. Perhaps enough of those voters would have backed Ossoff as a second choice, and propelled him over 50 percent.

Either way, Georgia's 6th District would now have a voice again in Congress, and it would have avoided tens of millions of dollars squandered on negative ads that make our politics more toxic — while lining the pockets of consultants, operatives and the media conglomerates that own local stations. Every voter would have had a say in the primary and the runoff, without having to cast a vote two different times, over the span of two months.

National Democrats have spent millions in the district on negative ads that paint Handel as a "career politician" who spent tax dollars on a luxury SUV and wanted to spend $15,000 on office chairs. Ads like this have not only displaced Andy Griffith, but also appeared on platforms the old TV sheriff never would have imagined — Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Meanwhile the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC connected with House Speaker Paul Ryan, declared that it would spend $6.5 million by June 20. No outside PAC has ever spent more money in any House race in history. Much of this money has gone into negative ads as well, often tying Ossoff to Nancy Pelosi and other national House Democrats who tend to be unpopular in red districts down South.

Our politics need not be so negative and dispiriting. As Mainers will experience in their congressional elections next year, the beauty of an instant runoff is that candidates need to compete to be the second choice of voters as well as the first choice. That encourages a more civil tone, a higher level of debate, and a willingness to actually engage with voters and ideas from the other side.

Perhaps most important, Georgia's 6th would actually have representation in Congress all this time. The seat has been vacant since President Donald Trump tapped Tom Price to lead the department of Health and Human Services, and the Senate confirmed him in February.

Had there been an instant runoff in April, the winner would have been seated in time to vote last week on the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare and replace it with the American Health Care Act. That bill cleared the House by only four votes. These Georgia citizens did not have any voice at all.

All voters — even those who don't care about Andy Griffith reruns — deserve better.

David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote, the author of "Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn't Count," and the former editor in chief of Salon. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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