Voices & Choices

Turnout plummets in yet another primary runoff

Turnout plummets in yet another primary runoff

In early June, more than 93,000 people cast their ballots in the GOP primary for Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District. For voters in 40 of the 50 states, that’s the end of the line: the candidate with the most votes advances to the general election, even if opposed by most of the voters. Alabama, however, is one of several states with a primary runoff system. After no one secured a majority in the first round, a second election was necessary to find a winner. But Alabama’s runoff, like most around the country, had very low turnout and undermined the state’s majoritarian goals.

With the race narrowed to two candidates, four-time incumbent Martha Roby coasted to victory over former Democrat and Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright. Only about 70,000 showed up.

Believe it or not, this 24 percent drop in turnout is significantly lower than your average primary runoff for Congress. In other words, it’s usually a lot worse. As FairVote previously reported, the average decline in these elections from 1994 to 2016 was just under 36 percent. Decline was also nearly universal: in the 190 regularly scheduled primary runoffs during that time, 183 had fewer people participate in the second election.

It hasn’t gotten any better this summer. With the pivotal November midterms looming on the horizon, there have been 25 primary runoff elections across four different states thus far. Turnout has declined in all but one contest, and by large amounts. On average, we have seen a 44 percent decrease, with ten races topping 50 percent.  

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Though runoffs ensure that winning candidates have a majority of the votes, it comes at a steep cost. Asking voters to return to the ballot box, often many weeks later, raises significant barriers to participation. With so many fewer people voting in the decisive election, the results—and the winning candidate—become far less reflective of the public. As one Georgia columnist wrote earlier this week, “[T]hese contests are like a baseball game that wasn’t settled until the 17th inning. And only the die-hards stick around for the 17th inning.”

Ranked choice voting (RCV) offers a simple solution to this problem: an instant runoff.  If no candidate receives a majority in the first round, there is no need to hold a second election. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those who ranked that candidate as “number 1” have their ballots go to their next choice. This process of eliminating the last-place candidate and having their votes go towards their next choice continues until a candidate wins with more than half the votes.

This system ensures that voters only go to the polls once, making it easier to participate, and elects winners with majority support. This was on full display last month, when Maine held the first ever statewide RCV elections.

For the states that continue to use deeply flawed primary runoffs, RCV offers a strong alternative that gives people a greater voice in our politics. They would be well-served to adopt it.

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Photo illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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