Voices & Choices

Reinventing the runoff

Reinventing the runoff

Record numbers of voters across the country turned out for the midterm elections this year. But many races, including the Mississippi Senate race and the Secretary of State race in Georgia, weren’t decided on Election Day. Instead, they’re heading to expensive, low-turnout runoff elections.

Mississippi and Georgia require federal and statewide election winners to get a majority of votes cast in the race. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of votes, there is a second runoff between the top two vote-getters to meet this requirement. While majority requirements are an important tool to create democratic elections, runoffs are an ineffective way of ensuring whoever wins election has support from the most voters.

Research conducted by FairVote on runoffs shows that turnout declined by an average of 38 percent in federal runoffs held from 1992 to 2016. Similar drops can be expected in Mississippi Senate runoff Tuesday and the following Georgia runoff. Such massive turnout drops undercut the value of majority requirements.

And these costs aren’t just at the federal or state level.

Pueblo, Colorado held its first mayoral election this November. Sixteen candidates ran. No one got more than 13 percent of the vote. Pueblo’s new charter, adopting its mayor-council form of government, requires that the mayor receive a majority of the vote to be elected. Unfortunately for Pueblo voters, its competitive mayoral election means they need to vote again on Jan. 22 in the mayoral runoff. The runoff will cost more than $100,000, with $104,300 needed just to print and mail ballots.

Pueblo could have avoided the extra expense if it had used ranked choice voting (RCV) instead. Georgia and Mississippi could have been assured of winners with majority support within days of their elections, instead of waiting nearly a month to hold low-turnout runoffs. Plus, Mississippi already uses ranked choice voting for its military and overseas voters to avoid delays that might preclude them from participating in a runoff.

In Maine, ranked choice ballots ensured a winner emerged with majority support in the four-way 2nd Congressional District race, with 95 percent of ballots cast counted in the tally for the two finalists. Mississippi Senate runoff, in comparison, would have average turnout if just 62 percent of voters who participated in the first round show up for their runoff Tuesday.

In Memphis, voters chose to retain the RCV system they adopted in 2008. While Memphis has yet to implement RCV, they’ll be able to eliminate the city’s costly, low-turnout runoffs in time for the upcoming 2019 city elections. Pueblo could follow their lead and consolidate their elections, saving money and ensuring a mayor with broad support.

Voters understand and approve of RCV, winners emerge with majority support with RCV, and new voting equipment can run RCV out of the box. Georgia, Mississippi, Pueblo, and the many other states and cities using runoffs would save thousands of dollars and have a more representative government if they adopted ranked choice voting. Adopting RCV is a low-risk, high reward change that benefits voters, candidates, and democracy. All these places need to do is pass a law permitting it.


Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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