Solving Problems: Replacing Runoffs with Ranked Choice Voting

Posted by Avi Steele on November 07, 2016

As the general election nears, FairVote will discuss problems with our election system and electoral solutions offered by ranked choice voting.

In a previous blog post, we discussed the problems that can arise when more than two candidates run, and one candidate can without a majority. In reaction to this problem, many states and localities hold a second election featuring the top two vote-getters if no candidate in the primary or general election wins a majority of the vote. This second election is commonly referred to as a “runoff election.” While runoff elections are a well-intentioned attempt at ensuring majority winners, they generate a whole slew of problems that make for an incomplete solution.

To begin with, FairVote research on Congressional primary runoffs shows that voter turnout is almost always lower in the runoff than in the initial primary election. In a twenty-year period, 177 of 184 scheduled primary runoffs for U.S. House and Senate races experienced lower turnout than the initial elections. On average, more than a third of those who voted in the initial primary stayed home for the runoff. In Texas’s 32nd Congressional District, for example, the 2008 runoff saw a decrease in turnout of almost 94% from the first election. To be sure, nominating a candidate with majority support is a worthy goal of a runoff election. However, when so many fewer people vote in the second election, results can be just as  unrepresentative as the initial primary, had a winner been selected with a plurality of the vote.

Why does turnout plummet in runoffs? Beyond voter fatigue and the scorched earth campaign tactics that often accompany runoffs,  one key factor seems to be the delay between elections. Of the congressional runoffs that FairVote studied, more elections had a gap of twenty-one to thirty days than any other range, and median turnout decline for these elections was more than thirty percent from 1994 to 2014. Median decline for runoffs held thirty-one to forty days after the initial election had the most severe median turnout decline at just under fifty percent. These gaps exist to allow election administrators to prepare for holding a second election, as well as to allow overseas and military voters to participate in the electoral process, as their ballots take much longer to be received than domestic and civilian voters. Nevertheless, the gap between the first election and the runoff election leads to a dramatic drop in voter turnout and compromises the representativeness of the election.

Finally, holding a second election is a major cost to taxpayers. For example, Kim Strach, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, told the Raleigh News & Observer that runoffs in her state cost as much as ten million dollars. The 2013 New York City race for Public Advocate required a runoff election which cost taxpayers thirteen million dollars and only saw seven percent turnout. In response, the Office of the NYC Comptroller compiled a list of recommendations to make city elections fairer and more affordable. One provision was the adoption of ranked choice voting.

Cities in California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland and Minnesota now use ranked-choice voting — also known as “instant runoff voting” — as an alternative to runoffs. Ranked choice voting allows jurisdictions to achieve results grounded in majority rule while avoiding the drawbacks associated with runoff elections. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice on Election Day. All first choices are counted, and if a candidate has a majority, then he or she wins just like any other election. But if nobody has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those voters have their ballot instantly count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority, and is declared the winner.

By making this simple, common sense change to our electoral system, we can make elections more representative, less expensive, and fairer for all Americans.

 

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