Chaundra Lewis had a great night Tuesday in her quest to become the first African American and the first woman elected to Henry County’s State or Superior Court bench. She won 41.7% of the vote, almost twice as much as her nearest challenger, David Brown. However, Lewis fell well short of the 50.1% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Subtle yet potent biases in Georgia’s electoral laws make Brown a strong favorite in the runoff.
Georgia Judicial elections are ostensibly non-partisan. Party affiliations are not listed on the ballot, and candidates are discouraged from announcing them. However, Henry County voters haven’t gotten this message. In fact, partisan affiliation explains a whopping 98.9% of the variation in Lewis’s vote share between precincts. In other words, voters behaved no differently than if Lewis were a Democratic gubernatorial or senate candidate.
We don’t have data for which candidate individual voters chose, so we can’t say X percent of Democrats voted for Lewis. However, we do have excellent data for the partisan lean of each precinct. Voters had to decide whether to cast a Democratic or Republican ballot in the partisan primaries. Accordingly, we can gauge the partisanship of each precinct by the percent of voters who voted in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. By comparing these figures with Lewis’s performance in each precinct, we can measure the effect of partisanship upon her vote share.
The results are staggering. There is an almost perfect correlation between Democratic partisanship and Lewis’s vote share. The horizontal axis plots the proportion of voters in each precinct who voted in the Democratic primary. The vertical axis shows Lewis’s vote share.
Lewis’s dependence upon Democratic votes is likely a fatal weakness. Henry County is “light blue.” Clinton won Henry County by a few points, and, in 2014, the county backed Democrats for Senate and Governor, albeit by very slim margins. In yesterday’s gubernatorial primary, there were 15,599 Democratic ballots cast versus 13,065 for Republicans. Why is relying on Democratic votes a disadvantage in the runoff when Democrats are winning Henry County elections?
The answer lies at the top of the ticket. Stacey Abrams won the Democratic gubernatorial primary in a landslide. However, Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp will meet in a Republican runoff. The absence of any marquis Democratic runoffs means that Democrats are far less likely to vote in the runoff than Republicans. The Republican legislators who designed our electoral system probably understood this dynamic. Because Republicans are the dominant party statewide, their senatorial and gubernatorial primaries attract a greater number of viable candidates and are much more likely to result in runoffs. Accordingly, the electorate for primary runoffs is, on average, more Republican than that for any other Georgia election. What a fine time for judicial elections! Brown will be able to grab onto the coattails created by the Republican gubernatorial contest. Lewis is on her own. Despite a resounding lead in yesterday’s balloting, her chances of victory are slim.