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Nomination by Attrition

Released October 25, 2007

A FairVote Innovative Analysis

Facts in the Spotlight

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Number of federal primary runoff elections between 1994 and 2006: 104

Number of those elections that saw turnout declines: 101

Average turnout decline in those races: 35%
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Election Day in America is a day that arrives with some conflicting emotional baggage. On one hand, we can be filled with pride that we live in a country founded on the idea that the people should be able to decide their own fate, one in which every person has a say in the way their government is run. On the other hand, we are disappointed that relatively few of us take advantage of the voting franchise. We also tout majority rule as the basis for democracy, then use voting methods that either allow majorities to go unrepresented or make our turnout problem even worse.

Problems with Prefixes: If it is difficult to stir even half of the country's eligible voters to go to the polls, we find more trouble the more prefixes we add. Primary elections suffer from relatively low turnout. In the eight states that currently require primary winners to reach a certain threshold of support (usually 50%) to demonstrate true support in the party, and we have a primary runoff election, the numbers dwindle even further.

How much further? Between 1994 and 2006, 101 out of 104 runoffs for federal primary elections (for House and Senate) saw turnout declines from the initial primaries. The average drop-off during this period was 35%. 2006 saw the largest turnout drop for primary runoffs at 43%, meaning that in a watershed year like 2006, almost half of all primary voters did not take part in the final selection process to determine their parties' nominees. When a low-turnout primary winds up moving to a lower-turnout primary runoff, how can anyone be sure that the winner is the true consensus choice?

Consensus not achieved: Drops like this can have a major impact on the result. Take, for example, situations in which the second-place finisher in the first primary wins in the runoff. All well and good until one realizes that almost half of the primary voters from the first election opted out. In fact, in 29% of cases, the second-place finisher won in the runoff, even though far fewer primary voters showed up for the runoff.

So why have a threshold, and force a primary runoff at all? Think of an election, primary or general, in which several candidates are gunning for the same office - it's not unusual, as the current presidential season demonstrates. It's likely in such a case to have the first place finisher win with a vote percentage in the 20s. Indeed, FairVote found that in the five congressional elections from 1994 to 2002, there were 214 non-majority primary wins in U.S. House primaries and 29 in U.S. Senate primaries - with some winners waltzing to general election wins in lopsided districts after victories with well under 30%. For example, Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania won his 18th congressional district Democratic primary in 1994 with less than 20% of the vote while Massachusetts Democrat Michael Capuano won the 8th District after taking 23% in his primary in 1998.

By instituting a threshold, there can be more assurance that the winner is truly represents his or her party. Louisiana does away with primaries altogether with a blanket election, but still requires a runoff if no one reaches a certain threshold.

The instant remedy: The best way to be confident that the eventual nominee has the majority of his or her party behind them (and the way to eliminate the need for a costly, low-turnout runoff) is to use instant runoff voting (IRV) in primary elections. IRV allows voters to rank candidates on a ballot in order of preference. When one voter's first choice turns out to be a loser, their second choice is counted instead. In other words, with IRV voters can indicate who they would support if their first choice doesn't make the cut for a traditional runoff. Turnout never drops off because there is no second election from which to drop.

IRV is currently used in cities such as San Francisco, Burlington (VT), and Takoma Park (MD), and the city of Cary (NC) on October 9th became the first city in the American South to implement it - to rave reviews. The city avoided an expensive runoff, and an exit poll showed three-to-one support for IRV over traditional runoffs and 96% understanding of the system. Three North Carolina dailies then called for expanding IRV elections in their state. Hendersonville will soon follow with North Carolina's second IRV election.

Good news gets around: Local and national media are taking notice of Cary's big success. Check out this article in USA Today, which earlier in the year gave a ringing editorial endorsement to IRV. Also take a look at the newspaper endorsements from North Carolina and across the country.