Voices & Choices

Here’s a Way to Eliminate Alabama’s Costly, Low-Turnout Runoffs

Here’s a Way to Eliminate Alabama’s Costly, Low-Turnout Runoffs

Today, April 12th, Alabama will hold costly runoff elections for the District 1 and District 7 seats on the Alabama State Board of Education, as well as several Circuit Court Judge nominations. These runoffs are required when no candidate receives a majority of votes in the primary elections, which took place on March 1st. In District 1, Republican candidates Jackie Zeigler and Matthew Brown will be the only two candidates on the ballot in most of district, but the election will cost approximately $500,000 to administer.

If history is any indication, turnout for these runoffs will likely be in the single digits -- in sharp contrast to the high-turnout first round when Alabama also held its presidential primary. In 2014, for example, Alabama taxpayers shelled out $3 million dollars to pay for several statewide runoffs that garnered voter turnout of only 7.6%.

Costly, low-turnout runoffs like this are commonplace in Alabama where rules requiring runoffs for party primaries have become ingrained in the political process. Critics of the runoff system have become increasingly vocal in calling for the state to get rid of its majority requirement for primaries to avoid runoffs altogether. However, there is a better solution available than simply doing away with consensus winners in primaries, and it's one that the state of Alabama already uses: ranked choice voting.

In 2014, Alabama tried ranked ballots for military and overseas voters in federal primary elections for the first time, joining Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. For these elections, overseas voters return two ballots before the primary. On the first ballot, they select one candidate to receive their vote in the primary. On the second ballot, they rank candidates in order of preference so that if the primary election requires a runoff, their ballot counts for whichever remaining candidate was ranked higher.

Ranked ballots have been successful, which is why Alabama made the new system permanent in 2015. But in light of runoffs like the one on Tuesday, that success begs the question: why not use ranked choice voting for all primary voters to eliminate costly runoff elections altogether?

Ranked choice voting is also known as “instant-runoff voting” because cities have often adopted it to replace runoffs. It allows voters to rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice--just like the second primary ballot used by military and overseas voters. All first choices are counted, and if a candidate has a majority, then they win just like any other election. However if nobody has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those voters have their ballot instantly count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority of votes, and is declared the winner.

By allowing voters to express their preferences on multiple candidates, an “instant runoff” election takes place without asking voters to return to the polls weeks after the primary. Alabamians would still get the consensus results that runoffs are meant to provide, but without the associated low turnout and high costs.

Research from cities using ranked choice voting shows that it does more than just save money and uphold majority rule: In 2013 and 2014, political scientists Todd Donovan and Caroline Tolbert worked with the Rutgers-Eagleton poll to survey more than 4,800 voters in seven cities using the system and 14 “control” cities without it. A majority of voters in every ranked choice voting city supported keeping it, and voters in those cities generally found the campaigns more civil and satisfying.

Alabama legislators should consider expanding the use of ranked ballots for military and overseas voters to state and local runoffs to minimize the gap between primary and runoff elections. A more comprehensive solution, however, would be to adopt ranked choice voting for all voters in federal and state primaries to eliminate runoffs completely. There would be initial costs associated with introducing the new system, but it would quickly pay for itself. Alabama taxpayers can likely think of better ways to spend the millions of dollars the state would save.

Image Source: NPR/Tim Evanson


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