In 2020, more voters will use ranked ballots in federal elections than ever before. Naturally, that includes Maine’s upcoming uses, and the four states holding their Democratic primary elections with RCV. But it also includes a state you might not realize includes ranked ballots in their elections: Alabama.
To explain how some Alabama voters will use ranked ballots, we need to back up a little and talk about primary runoff elections. Altogether, 10 states, all in the south, hold a primary runoff election if no candidate earns a majority of the vote in their primary. There will be several such elections this year, including the senate primaries in both Alabama and Texas.
In Alabama’s Republican primary election for senate (to challenge incumbent Democrat Doug Jones), Tommy Tuberville led with only 33.4% of the vote and Jeff Sessions came in second with 31.6%. In Texas’s Democratic primary election for senate (to challenge incumbent Republican John Cornyn), MJ Hegar led with only 22.3% of the vote while Royce West came in second with 14.5%.
Our research shows that primary runoff elections have abysmally low turnout, but not all states are equal. Since 1994, Alabama’s primary runoff contests have had a median turnout decline of 25.8%, while Texas’s primary runoff contests have had a median turnout decline of 48.4%. Both show severe drops in turnout, but Texas has far greater turnout declines than Alabama.
The reason comes down to timing. If the runoff happens soon after the first round, turnout declines less than after a long delay. Both Alabama and Texas held their primary elections on March 3. Alabama’s primary runoff will take place the same month, on March 31. Texas, however, will not hold its primary runoff election until May 26, almost three months later.
Texas has such a long break between rounds because that amount of time is needed to print ballots and mail them to Texas’s military and overseas voters, and to provide them sufficient time to vote those ballots and return them. That inclusion is important, but it comes at a severe cost in terms of turnout decline.
Alabama, however, accommodates military and overseas voters without needing a long break between rounds. That is because Alabama is one of five states where overseas absentee voters use a ranked ballot any time a runoff election is possible. Military and overseas voters vote once in the primary election, and they include a ballot ranking the candidates. In case of a runoff election, the ranked ballots simply count for whichever runoff candidate the voter ranked higher.
Alabama military and overseas voters benefit from the system by being included in runoffs - in fact they likely participate at a greater rate than if Alabama had increased the time between rounds. Alabama voters generally benefit from the shorter primary campaign season. Even better would be if Alabama extended the right to rank candidates to all voters.