Voices & Choices

Congressional Runoffs Highlight the Need for Ranked Choice Voting

Congressional Runoffs Highlight the Need for Ranked Choice Voting

As most of the 2020 election cycle has wrapped up, citizens have seen their local, state, and federal governments take shape. On the federal level, however, the composition of the U.S. Senate will remain incomplete until January, when the Senate runoff elections are called in Georgia. Both Georgia and fellow southern state, Louisiana, share the practice of holding runoff elections should no candidate meet the required vote percentage threshold of 50%. So, despite the fact that turnout reached record highs in November, no candidates in the 5th Congressional District of Louisiana, the two U.S. Senate races in Georgia, or Georgia’s public service commissioner race received the majority mandate of their constituents. The Georgia runoff elections in particular hold the nation’s attention as they will presumably decide which party will hold control of the Senate for the near future. But these runoffs are also notable for another reason: they highlight the need for ranked choice voting (RCV).

In Georgia, partisans on both sides of the aisle are bracing for two more months of expensive, cutthroat campaigning ahead of the January 5 runoff. Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and their Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, are vying for the last two seats that will determine the partisan makeup of the incoming Senate. If Warnock and Ossoff prevail over their Republican counterparts, the Senate composition will turn from a Republican majority to a 50-50 partisan split, with Vice President-Elect Harris serving as a tie-breaker. This partisan parity would clear a (currently obstructed) pathway for the Biden administration’s legislative agenda. 

This means all eyes are on the runoff elections. Unfortunately, Georgia’s runoff system displays the same inherent deficiencies found in Louisiana, under undeniably higher stakes. Candidates on both sides must endure two additional months of aggressive and exorbitant campaigning, both to keep their agendas on the airwaves and to incentivize voters to turn out a second time.  Most importantly, voters face undue risks to participate in these runoffs, too. Georgians must again brave long lines in a pandemic to cast ballots for the same candidates in the same races they have already voted for - circumstances that are discouraging to even the most politically active citizens. When the dust settles in early January, Georgia’s new senators will be elected by a smaller fraction of voters who showed up twice, and not with the consent of the larger electorate that participated in Election Day. 

Louisiana Republicans Luke Letlow and Lance Harris faced off in the runoff 5th District election on December 5, over a month after the first round of voting. From a purely partisan perspective, the race had already been decided; this seat was to be a Republican seat, regardless of the runoff outcome. In deciding which Republican candidate would fill the seat, the jurisdictions and candidates involved in this race needed to undertake another election process, complete with get-out-the-vote efforts, running polling locations, resending absentee ballots, and all the costly trappings of a congressional campaign. This continued mobilization of voting and campaigning infrastructure is not cheap and the additional costs of Louisiana’s use of runoff elections is a burden borne by the constituents themselves. 

The results of the first round of voting demonstrated that Letlow is more popular than both Harris and Christophe as a first choice, but ultimately did not receive enough support to win outright and was forced into an additional month of campaigning. The month-long gap between elections in Louisiana’s current system resulted in a sharp decline in voter turnout, dropping 74.4% from 309,556 votes to 79,306, and Letlow claiming victory. Given Letlow’s 16.9% advantage over the second-place Harris in the general election, Letlow may have immediately picked up support as a popular second choice for many voters had ranked choice voting been used. Even if this was not the case, the second and continuing rounds of voting could have all been decided by ranked choice voting sooner than December 5. Instead, citizens of the Louisiana 5th Congressional District were forced to hedge their bets on a single candidate, regardless to which candidate the rest of their support may have fallen, resulting in a costly runoff election with dismal voter turnout.

In sum, the runoff systems in Louisiana and Georgia escalate campaign financing, inhibit voter participation, and unnecessarily delay the results of significant elections. RCV, however, would ameliorate all of these problems. First, RCV eases the pressure placed on candidates to run expensive (and divisive) runoff campaigns. Instead of subjecting voters to extra months of attack ads and political drama, RCV allows candidates to run holistic, positive campaigns to attract second- and third-choice support from voters across the political spectrum. Ranked choice voting also gives voters the opportunity to vote once and have the entire scale of their support be instantly counted. If citizens had cast ranked ballots in Louisiana and Georgia, winners would have been decided immediately using voters’ second- and third-choice ballots. RCV thus delivers the seat to a majority winner in a timely manner, using all of the ballots cast by voters on Election Day. As American democracy hangs in the balance until the last runoffs in January, RCV’s efficiency and democratic efficacy are the optimal solution.


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