Oklahoma’s primary election day was June 30, but Republicans in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District recently returned to the polls for a second time in two months to vote in a primary runoff for their nominee. Yet over 16,000 voters who participated in the June primary did not return for the second round of voting, a dropoff of almost 25 percent.
Oklahoma’s primary runoffs are supposed to ensure that whoever the party nominates has support from the majority of members, but that goal is undermined by the fact that primary runoffs typically have far lower turnout than the initial primary. An analysis of 51 runoffs by Oklahoma Watch found that turnout declined in 49 of them. Oklahoma fits the rule, as well, as our biennial report on primary runoff elections shows 96 percent of primary runoffs in the US saw a decline in turnout with a median decline of 36 percent between primary elections and runoff elections. In 2020, the median turnout drop from the 6 states holding primary runoffs was almost 50%.
Moreover, FairVote found that the longer the delay between the initial primary and runoff, the more turnout will decline. Oklahoma uses a roughly two-month runoff period to provide time for military and overseas voters to participate by mail, making its decline precipitous.
Oklahoma’s 5th District race is expected to be one the most competitive in the country this year, with an incumbent Democrat attempting to defend her seat. That makes it especially important for both parties to pick a strong nominee who appeals to as much of the electorate as possible heading into November, but low turnout makes primary runoffs ineffective at accomplishing this. A better solution is to use ranked choice voting (RCV), which acts as an instant runoff by asking for voters’ second choice preferences on a single, high-turnout election day.
Conducting primaries with RCV has other benefits, too. First, it is fiscally responsible. Traditional runoffs can cost states thousands or even millions of dollars to administer, requiring them to pay for voting equipment, ballots, and workers all over again. RCV eliminates those duplicate costs.
Second, holding one RCV election can save candidates money. Conservative columnist Henry Olsen wrote in a recent Washington Post Op-Ed that using RCV in presidential primaries would “empower genuine voter choice as lesser-funded candidates could stay in the race while voters use their subsequent preferences to choose between the finalists.” His words apply equally well to RCV congressional primaries because candidates wouldn’t have to spend money on two get-out-the-vote efforts.
Finally, RCV incentivizes candidates to avoid negative campaigning, something runoffs do not. When candidates know they need to appeal to a majority of voters as a second or third choice, they are likely to avoid attacking other candidates. Traditional runoffs can be won by appealing to a small portion of voters in the first round and then attacking your opponent viciously in the second.
In a recent interview with Fox 13, Utah Governor Gary Herbert said that he supports RCV in part because it keeps campaigns more positive and issue focused.
"I think [RCV] has advantages. If I can’t be your first choice, I want to be your second choice. So I think it brings a more civil campaign and I think that’s a good thing and we can concentrate really on the issues at hand." - Governor Gary Herbert
Whether state officials want to save money, keep campaigns positive, or help voters stay engaged, RCV is a clear improvement on the traditional primary process. We encourage all policymakers to learn more about how it works and bring it to their communities.