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Primary Runoffs Show Need for Reform Voter turnout drops predictably

by Alec Slatky // Published June 23, 2010

            Runoff elections are in the news - and with good reason.  Yesterday, both South Carolina and North Carolina had runoff elections to determine nominations for statewide and congressional nominations in races expected to be competitive this fall.  Arkansas did two weeks ago.  In all three runoffs, turnout plunged, candidates had to raise and spend huge sums of money, and taxpayers took a major financial hit.  The Washington Post's "The Fix" column had a lead piece on whether runoffs were needed, and editorials in several papers in the Carolinas have made similar statements.

            FairVote prefers runoffs to plurality voting.  Single-winner races can produce undemocratic outcomes when more than two candidates run - issues of "spoilers," "split votes" and illegitimate victories follow.  The desire of the parties in states with runoff laws to make sure that the nominee actually has substantial support within the party is commendable, given that primary elections often effectively determine who will win the general election.  Unfortunately, far too many voters fail to return for most runoffs, making alternatives like instant runoff voting more attractive.  At least two states already recognize this fact, and have implemented instant runoff voting for their overseas voters.  In an effort to ensure that every voter is counted, including our troops fighting overseas, Arkansas and South Carolina allow overseas and military voters to vote using a ranked ballot.  They need to return their ballot before the first round of the primary as usual, but do not need to resubmit a ballot for the runoff.  If a voter's first choice fails to qualify for the runoff, the runoff vote will go to the higher-ranked of the remaining candidates.

            Such a method seems simple enough, and works toward establishing more equitable elections.  On an obvious level, all absentee ballots are counted for the runoffs, a feature that is a prerequisite for legitimacy.  This is achieved without the time, money, and effort required to distribute a second round of ballots to all overseas and military voters - and makes it all the more likely they will have a vote in the runoff.  Such cost would be of little importance if it were essential to achieve election fairness, but ranked ballots render that expenditure unnecessary, and so the economically rational - as well as the politically just - course of action is this system of ranked ballots for overseas and military voters.

            FairVote applauds this action taken by Arkansas and South Carolina, as well as the state that first adopted this innovation, Louisiana.  It encourages other states and cities to adopt similar legislation, which would be one significant step towards repairing the primary system.  But the reforms need not end there, and at least in Arkansas and South Carolina, the mechanism for one major change is already in place.

            Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV, is designed to take the absentee ballots that Arkansas and South Carolina use to select their nominees and expand it to the entire primary.  IRV simulates a runoff based on voters having the power to rank candidates in order of choice: first, second, third, and so on.  In its simplest form, the two candidates with the most votes among first choices ranking advance to a runoff round, just as with a traditional runoff.  But rather than asking voters to come back and vote a second time in a runoff, their rankings can tell us their preferences between the top two candidates in the instant runoff.  Ballots cast for the eliminated candidates are added to the totals of the runoff candidates based on whichever runoff candidate is ranked next on the ballot.  IRV, like the ranked absentee ballots, would not only eliminate the cost of the runoff election, but also ensure that more votes are counted.

            Turnout nearly always drops off markedly between the initial primary and the runoff election.  The recent contest between incumbent Blanche Lincoln and Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter for the Democratic senatorial nomination in Arkansas demonstrated this phenomenon once again.  In the first round of this primary, 326,814 votes were tallied, but only 257,580 were counted in the runoff, resulting in a 21% decrease in voter turnout, a statistic which is dishearteningly commonplace.  FairVote examined every regularly scheduled federal primary runoff between 1994 and 2008, and found that voter turnout declined in 113 out of 116 runoffs, by an average of more than 30%.  Lincoln ended up winning 52-48, but received far fewer votes in the runoff than she did in the first round.

            The point of this exercise is not to question the legitimacy of Blanche Lincoln's victory.  Rather, it is to show that not only would higher turnout make results more accurate, but that high turnout in runoff elections is desirable as a general civic ideal.  Yesterday, in South Carolina's runoff for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, heavily favored Nikki Haley defeated challenger Gresham Barrett 233,332-125,408.  The turnout decreased by only 15%, which is an impressive statistic compared to the average drop in turnout, but still unsatisfactory.  In North Carolina's Democratic U.S. Senate runoff, turnout fell by a staggering 63%, and winner Elaine Marshall received fewer votes in the runoff than her challenger, Cal Cunningham, received in the initial primary.  This data should be unacceptable, yet it seems to occur every year.

            Everyone can agree that the higher the turnout, the more legitimate the outcome as a reflection of eligible voters.  Once again, though, there is simply no reason to aim at increasing turnout in runoff elections when they could be replaced with an instant runoff.  We at FairVote urge other states to learn from the successes of the Arkansas and South Carolina policies, adopt similar ones, and extend the same idea of including every voter to the whole primary through IRV.