Herbkersman, Richie - Time to run off runoffs

// Published May 21, 2009 in The State

Nov. 4 was a historic day for democracy in South Carolina. Nearly 2 million South Carolinians went to the polls to make their voices heard — a record high.

If only the same could be said for the primary runoff elections held earlier in the year.

In the 11 runoff races held on June 24, nine saw voter turnout plunge by 16 percent or more. The low point was the race for the Democratic nomination in the 4th District U.S. House seat, in which 48 percent fewer voters came to the polls the second time around: The winner actually earned far fewer votes than he earned in the first round.

Such declines in turnout in runoffs are typical. The election reform lobby FairVote recently released a report titled “Federal Primary Election Runoffs and Voter Turnout Decline, 1994-2008,” which found that voter turnout declined in 113 of the 116 regularly scheduled federal primary runoffs since 1994, on average by 35 percent. In a Democratic runoff for Texas' 32nd U.S. House district last year, an astounding 94 percent fewer people voted in the runoff election.

There's real value in requiring nominees to prove that they have majority support in their party. But there's something wrong when turnout plunges so sharply, and taxpayers have to foot the bill, which the State Election Commission estimated at roughly $650,000 in South Carolina last year.

It doesn't have to be this way. We're in the 21st century, and South Carolina can replace its traditional approach to majority elections with instant runoff voting. Backed by President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain and tested out with good results in North Carolina, instant runoff voting determines a majority winner in one efficient election.

Voters gain the option to rank candidates in order of preference rather than select only one choice. If no candidate wins with a first-choice majority, the two candidates with the most votes advance to the instant runoff. Ballots that were cast for eliminated candidates are added to the totals of the runoff candidates according to which runoff candidate is ranked next on the ballot. That's all there is to it.

Instant runoff voting is used in countless private organizations because it is recommended in Robert’s Rules of Order. It has been adopted to replace two rounds of voting in jurisdictions in California, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina and Tennessee.

And instant runoff ballots already are used by overseas and military voters during traditional runoffs in Arkansas and Louisiana and, since 2006, right here in South Carolina. In the eight counties where both Democratic and Republican voters had runoff elections in 2006, the valid ballot rate for overseas voters casting runoff ballots was fully 100 percent: Every voter returning an instant runoff ballot cast a valid runoff ballot.

Instant runoff voting's advantages over delayed runoffs:

• Taxpayers save time and money. Traditional runoffs are costly. Reducing the number of election days would allow administrators to spend their resources more efficiently. Also, since instant runoff voting elections could be done using South Carolina's current equipment without any need to re-certify software, implementation costs would be minimal.

• Candidates are less likely to be indebted to special-interest contributors. Right now, candidates often fight to make the runoff and then find their campaigns strapped for cash — triggering a scramble for more money that all too easily leads to the potential for ethical abuses.

• All votes will count, and the winner gets a majority. By combining the two rounds of the runoff, instant runoff voting ensures maximum turnout in one decisive election.

In general elections, instant runoff voting permits people to vote for third-party candidates without spoiling majority winners. This way, third-party supporters could vote their true preference without having to worry about spoiling the candidate they prefer between the two most likely winners.

But that’s a separate decision to make. Right now, the logical place to move to instant runoff voting is in primary and local elections that combine two elections into one. Cities can consider it right now, as recommended by the League of Women Voters of South Carolina in 2005, and then next year the Legislature can — and should — move forward with establishing instant runoff voting for state and federal primary elections.

Rep. Herbkersman is a Republican from Beaufort County. Mr. Richie is the executive director of FairVote, which advocates election-law changes to increase voter participation.