Voices & Choices

Federal primary runoffs face low turnout; RCV is potential solution

Federal primary runoffs face low turnout; RCV is potential solution

Primary runoff elections are a staple of American political life.

Runoff elections, which occur when no candidate surpasses a predetermined vote threshold in a primary, help prevent the nomination of a candidate with only low plurality support. They are common in southern states: In 2018, there were 31 runoffs across six states. 

Though traditional, these primary runoffs are not without fundamental problems.

FairVote conducted an analysis of all federal primary elections between 1994 and 2018 to determine if they were truly serving their intended purpose. What we found—significant average declines in turnout between the first and second rounds and, alarmingly, greater turnout declines among people of color—is deeply concerning.

As the report notes,

“In all but eight of the federal primary runoffs that took place between 1994 and 2018, voter turnout declined, often dramatically, between the initial primary and the runoff. For these elections, the mean turnout decline was 37.4% and the median decline was 36.1%.”

Whether caused by voter fatigue, a lack of media coverage of the runoff, or another extraneous factor, if more than a third of voters who voted in the initial primary election are not participating in the runoff, the system has a problem.


Additionally, a decrease in turnout corresponds with an increase in the number of days between the first and second rounds of the primary. This startling decline could be attributed to the fact that, as the report points out, “Voters are more likely to see a runoff as part of a single contest if the elections are held close together. Media coverage of the two rounds is more likely to be continuous, for example, and campaign operations to get out the vote may be easier to sustain.”

Lastly, primary runoffs disproportionately affect turnout for people of color, as illustrated by the graph below. This, in effect, means that the eventual winner of the primary runoff is not truly representative of the party electorate. That, of course, is a major problem.

All this information taken in aggregate—that runoffs have decreased turnout (especially for people of color), and that an increased gap in days between the initial election and the runoff correlates with an increased decline in turnout—begs for a policy solution.

Enter ranked choice voting.

In a ranked choice voting (RCV) election, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, they win—just like any other election. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as their first choice will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the votes.

In fact, RCV is currently used for military and overseas voters in primary runoffs in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. In this system, the overseas voters receive two ballots: a normal ballot for the initial primary, and a ranked ballot for the eventual runoff. By allowing election officials to adhere to federal law regarding the timing of runoff elections and overseas voters, this system ensures that, in states that truly want to still hold two separate elections, the runoff can be held close to the initial election—which helps to stem the turnout decline.

We have an even better suggestion: using RCV in the initial primary election.

RCV, by allowing voters to rank all of their candidates in order of preference, would ensure that there is no gap between first and second round elections—and therefore no decline in turnout.

Furthermore, RCV offers the perceived benefits of two-election runoffs—ensuring majority support within a party’s electorate, eliminating vote-splitting, and increasing voter choice—and more. These additional benefits include combating voter fatigue, friendlier elections, and significant cost savings.

We encourage policy-makers in states across the country to empower their voters by implementing RCV in federal primary elections. While its implications may appear narrow, it would be a big step forward on the road to fairer, more representative elections in our country.


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