Runoffs: More or less democratic?

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

When I told Jill Dabbs that she should already have been declared the winner in her race to be re-elected mayor of Bryant, I was surprised that she disagreed.

Dabbs placed first in a three-person race with 47 percent of the vote. In Tuesday’s runoff, she faces retired fire chief Randy Cox, who won 41 percent.

To me, 47 percent is close enough, but under Arkansas law, leading candidates who fall short of 50-percent-plus-one avoid a runoff only if they win 40 percent and have a 20 percent lead over the second place finisher. So, in Bryant, and in communities across Arkansas, here they go again.

According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 73 runoff elections are being contested across the state. Twenty-two of those are mayoral races, and those should generate some interest. The rest are a variety of local races that will inspire very low turnout.

Most states do not have runoffs. The few that do are mostly in the South, where they were created because Democrats were the only real party, and leaders did not want winners with marginal support to win multi-candidate party primaries. That’s according to Dr. Charles Bullock of the University of Georgia, who wrote a book about runoffs. In other words, it would be bad if a candidate supported by 25 percent but disliked by 75 percent won because all the other candidates split the vote. In Arkansas, runoffs were enacted in the 1930s to keep Ku Klux Klan members out of office, Bullock said.

One problem with runoffs is they attract much lower turnout than general elections. Dabbs won 47 percent of 6,156 votes cast Nov. 4, but she could lose in the runoff if her opponent wins a majority of a lot fewer votes.

Which result is more democratic and reflective of the will of the people? You could argue either way. If I were designing the system, a candidate would win with 40 percent in the general election and face a runoff otherwise.

Before continuing, I should tell you that Dabbs and I volunteered together for a campaign to build a community center in Bryant, and I briefly volunteered with her first mayoral campaign in 2010. I no longer live in Bryant, and this column doesn’t appear in any Saline County news source.

I asked Dabbs what she thought about my position that Arkansas’ current runoffs law might be less democratic than some alternative. I figured she’d agree with me after campaigning all day in cold weather looking for people interested in voting again – or voting for the first time. Instead, she was pretty much pro-runoff.

“I think there’s a silver lining around this runoff,” she said. “I really do. … Any time you can engage the community to move the community forward and for the community to do better, good is going to come from that.”

Dabbs said without runoffs, bad incumbents would remain in office in multi-candidate races because the good challengers would split the vote.

What about the lower turnout? She said the answer is for more people to actually vote. Changing the law to suit the culture would just be giving into apathy.

“The fact that we have low voter turnout is not reason to change the law,” she said. “What we need to do is we need to figure out how to get better voter turnout. We need to change the culture of our country to go back to being committed to voting and recognizing that it’s a freedom that we all need to be exercising.”

Can’t argue with the last part about increasing turnout, though I’m not sure how to do that. Voters had more than two weeks to show up for the general election and a week to vote in the runoff. Maybe we could do like Australia and make people pay a fine if they don’t vote? Nah.

Anyway, the mayor who could lose her job because of the runoffs wants to keep them, and the journalist being paid to write about runoffs wants to see less of them. What do the voters think? We’ll find out Tuesday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *