Ten states in the U.S. make use of primary runoff elections to choose party nominees for Congress in primary races where no candidate wins a majority of their party’s vote. In the event that no candidate surpasses a predetermined vote threshold (typically 50%, although lower in some states) voters are asked to return to the polls, sometimes months later, to cast a vote for one of the top two primary winners. This practice has a noble goal: it is intended to ensure that the party nominee is representative of the majority of party voters. However, the use of primary runoffs is declining, as the large costs associated with holding a second, sometimes statewide, election are a headache for state governments.
North Carolina eliminated all primary runoff contests for the 2016 primary cycle. North Carolina’s legislature voted in February to discontinue primary runoffs, stating instead that the final primary winner will be the top vote-getter in the initial contest regardless of the margin of victory. The move was initiated because the primary election had been delayed by challenges to the state’s congressional district boundaries, but state lawmakers cited the expense of an additional election as a main reason to eliminate primary runoffs.
Additionally, state legislators cited low voter turnout rates in primary runoffs as another reason to abandon them. Runoff turnout rates in the state have consistently been far below 10%, decreasing the likelihood that the primary runoff will nominate the candidate most representative of party voters.
North Carolina’s decision to eliminate primary runoffs echoes FairVote’s critique of this type of election. In a newly updated (and soon-to-be released) report, Federal Primary Election Runoffs and Voter Turnout Decline, 1994 – 2016, FairVote found that turnout decreases dramatically between the initial primary election and the following runoff. On average, the drop-off in turnout between the primary and primary runoff from 1994 to 2016 was 38.5% and the six federal runoffs that took place in 2016 saw the highest drop-off yet at an average of 58%-- that means that on average, less than half the voters came back to vote in the runoff. Since a much lower percentage of voters participate in these elections, it’s clear that primary runoffs are an ineffective means of avoiding winners who garner less than a majority of the vote.
That is not to say that holding a plurality election is the answer either. Florida banned and then eliminated its runoffs beginning in 2002, citing low turnout, extra costs and administrative difficulties. Eliminating runoffs opened Florida’s democracy to low plurality winners, which are now commonplace. This year, in three state legislative primaries in Miami-Dade County, party nominees won with small fractions of the vote. As Rob Richie and Austin Plier note, Roy Hardemon won his primary with 22 percent of the primary vote — and faces no opponent in November. Additionally, Daphne Campbell won her state senate primary with just 31 percent of the party vote and former Congressman David Rivera, narrowly won his primary with 36 percent.
In lieu of primary runoffs or plurality voting, North Carolina and other states should adopt ranked choice voting (RCV, also known as “instant runoff voting”). Ranked choice voting ensures that elected officials win with broad support without the expense and inconvenience of dragging voters back for another election. In an RCV election, voters rank candidates in order of choice instead of merely picking one. All of the first choices will be tallied, and if a candidate receives a majority they win just like any election. If no candidate has a majority, the last place finisher’s first-choice voters have their votes instantly count for their second choice. This process then continues until one candidate receives a clear majority. In this way, RCV provides the benefits of primary runoffs without the downsides of an unrepresentative electorate, additional trips to the polls, and increased cost to taxpayers.
This election season, voters in Maine will have a chance to enact RCV for their state and federal elections. Maine currently elects its leaders using plurality, which often leads to frustration when candidates who the majority dislike are elected with 40% (or less) of the vote. In adopting RCV, Maine would be able to better elect candidates with majority support while also avoiding the costs and turnout decline associated with runoffs. If Maine passed this reform, then this would provide a valuable opportunity for other states that currently use runoffs, including North Carolina, to see how beneficial this crucial reform can be for better ensuring majority rule while maximizing voter turnout and minimizing cost.
Image Source: Todd Lappin