Voices & Choices

Case study: Contingent runoffs in San Jose exacerbate racial turnout gap

Case study: Contingent runoffs in San Jose exacerbate racial turnout gap

As ranked choice voting (RCV) grows in popularity across the country, FairVote has studied how it can improve voter turnout by combining two-round elections into a single higher-turnout instant runoff contest. Congressional primary runoffs typically have 40% lower turnout than general elections, and previous research has found that RCV increases municipal turnout by 10 points compared to the primary elections it replaces.

San Jose, California is expected to consider an RCV charter amendment this year that would eliminate primary elections for municipal offices in favor of a single RCV election in November. This case study examines the impacts of San Jose’s current primary elections through a lens of racial diversity. 

San Jose and other California cities are unique because their general elections are structured as “contingent runoffs”,  meaning the general election only occurs if there is no majority winner in the non-partisan primary election. In the last two cycles of municipal elections, 6 out of 10 city council races in San Jose were decided during the primary election, with the candidates never facing a general electorate in November. 

Primary turnout tends to be significantly lower than general election turnout so the choices made in primary elections reflect the preferences of a smaller group of voters, creating less representative outcomes and denying a strong governing mandate to elected officials. 

Across the four elections studied in San Jose and Santa Clara County, voter turnout is highest among White voters in both primary and general elections. However, voters of color have a larger increase than White voters going into the general election. Turnout among voters of color doubles in the general election, while White turnout increases by only 1.5 times. Therefore, in the general election, turnout among voters of color is much closer to that of White voters.

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The natural result of these turnout disparities is that White voters make up a larger portion of the electorate in primary elections than they do in general elections. In the elections studied, White voters make up nearly half of the electorate in primary elections (40% - 48% depending on the election). In the general election when more voters of color turn out, White voters’ share of the electorate goes down to 33% - 40%. The racial makeup of the general electorate is therefore a closer match to that of San Jose as a whole, where 34% of voting-age citizens are White, according to Census data.

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San Jose could take significant steps towards closing this racial turnout gap by ending spring or summer primary elections and instead holding a single round of elections in November when candidates will face a larger and more diverse electorate. Ranked choice voting has achieved exactly that in nearby San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro, and dozens of other cities across the country. 

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