Alabama spends $3 million on low-interest election

7/12/2014 8:00 AM
By Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama taxpayers will spend $3 million on a runoff election Tuesday that most citizens will skip.

Alabama's chief election official, Secretary of State Jim Bennett, said he expects about 5 percent of Alabama' 2.85 million active voters to participate because of a lack of races that draw voters.

"You have no extremely high profile elections," Bennett said. His forecast is less than one-fourth of the 22 percent who turned out in the primary June 3.

No party has a runoff for governor or U.S. Senate. The Republican Party has runoffs for secretary of state, state auditor, and Public Service Commission Place 2, the 6th Congressional District, and six legislative seats. The Democratic runoff has no statewide races, no congressional contests, and only one legislative runoff. Only 20 of Alabama's 67 counties have a Democratic runoff Tuesday.

There is one constitutional amendment on the ballot statewide, but it has not generated much interest. If approved by a majority of Alabama voters, it would allow cotton farmers to vote to make a fee mandatory that they have been paying voluntarily on each bale of cotton. The fee is used for cotton promotion and research, said Hassey Brooks, program director for the state agriculture department.

Bennett acknowledges that his forecast of 5 percent turnout may be optimistic. The turnout didn't reach that during the runoff elections in 2004, 2008 or 2012.

"People are not interested in getting out for the secretary of state's race," said one of the contestants, state Rep. John Merrill of Tuscaloosa.

His opponent, former Montgomery County Probate Judge Reese McKinney, shares Merrill's concern about the lack of interest. "That will make every vote that much more valuable," he said.

No matter what the turnout, it costs about $3 million to stage an election statewide, the secretary of state said.

Runoff elections are a Southern tradition. Most states give the nomination to the top candidate in the primary.

Runoffs started in the South in the late 19th century and early 20th century when Democrats controlled the region. The general election in November didn't matter because the Republican Party was so weak. Democratic parties started runoff elections to make sure that crowded races weren't won by someone with strong regional appeal but little statewide appeal, said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who has written extensively about Southern elections.

Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas require a runoff it no candidate gets more than half the votes in the primary election. Louisiana has a runoff, but it is after all candidates compete in an open election.

North Carolina permits a runoff if no candidate tops 40 percent, but the second-place finisher has to call for it. Florida ended runoff elections in 2002.

Two non-Southern states have runoffs that hardly ever matter. South Dakota has runoffs for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and governor if no candidate tops 35 percent. Vermont has a runoff when two candidates tie.

Runoff elections raise concerns about people who traditionally vote in one party's primary crossing over to the other party's runoff. That became an issue in Mississippi's runoff for the U.S. Senate last month.

Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said some people made efforts to get traditional Democratic voters to vote in some hot legislative races in the Republican primary where the state teachers' organization was backing candidates, and he expects more of that in the runoff.

Bennett said nothing in state law prevents Democratic primary voters from crossing over to the Republican runoff. The Democratic Party has a rule that prohibits Republican primary voters from crossing over to the Democratic runoff.

Armistead is concerned that a few traditional Democratic voters could have more impact in the Republican runoff than they did in the primary because of the low turnout. "What we can't judge is how many folks will be voting who are regular Democratic voters," Armistead said.

Republican Rep. Mike Ball of Madison tried to pass legislation in 2013 that would prohibit a runoff if any candidate topped 35 percent of the vote in the primary and led his nearest competitor by 5 percentage points.

Ball said he's continuing to look at ideas, possibly for introduction in the 2015 session. One option is to abolish the runoff entirely and have the top vote-getter win. The other is to have people vote for a second choice in any race with more than two candidates. Then rather than have a runoff, those second choices would be compiled to determine a winner.

"Either one of those would eliminate crossover voting and save millions," Ball said.


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11/24/2014 | Last Updated: 2:30 PM