Joseph Kopser faced an uphill battle to clinch the Democratic nomination in Texas’s 21st Congressional District this year. Following a second place showing in the March 6 Democratic primary, with 14,787 votes, he was down almost 1,000 votes against the front runner, Mary Street Wilson. With just 77 days to cobble together a majority coalition, he pulled off a double digit margin win with 14,706 votes, 81 fewer votes than he had won in the first round.
In total, nine candidates won runoffs in Texas this week with fewer votes than they had earned in the first round, raising serious questions about whether the runoff elections accomplished their goals of ensuring the elected candidate must earn majority support. Since 1994, there have been 48 such winners.
In theory, runoffs are a strategy for making elections more majoritarian. If you have a race with a lot of candidates where there is a narrow plurality, you simply winnow the race to the top two candidates and hold a new election. Voters can decide which of the top two is most aligned with their interest, and eliminated candidates can endorse one of their victorious opponents, forging a majority and a policy mandate out of a divided primary field. However, low turnout in these elections complicates and often overwhelms this majoritarian impulse.
The average turnout decline between Texas primary elections and Texas primary runoffs is 45.9 percent. In the 35 races since 1994 where turnout declined by more than 50 percent, a candidate who won 25 percent of the vote in the first round could clinch the nomination with the same number of votes in the runoff as they won in the primary. In 4 races, including the one mentioned above, with both high dropoff and a very divided field, candidates won the runoff with less votes than either themselves or their opponents had won in the first round. By consolidating rounds of counting into one election and eliminating candidates one by one, ranked choice voting (RCV), allows a real majority to be forged in a way that is fairer to voters and campaigns.
Supporters of runoffs occasionally point to ballot exhaustion in RCV elections as a reason that runoffs are a preferable way of conferring a majority. However, in races that go to multiple rounds, FairVote has found average ballot exhaustion rates of 13 percent, 32 percentage points lower than the runoff dropout rate, and with lower variation between demographic groups. Low turnout runoffs occur everywhere, but are particularly likely in highly diverse districts, particularly those with large Asian or Hispanic populations, which struggle with turnout generally.
This is why RCV outperforms runoffs in upholding majority rule even when exhausted ballots are taken into account. Votes are exhausted if a voter chose not to rank every candidate, and in some round only the unranked candidates remain. In runoffs, however, voters are exhausted by failing to vote in the runoff at all - this can be because they have no preference or because their work or family duties prevent them from coming out to vote a second time, or because the media failed to adequately cover the runoff causing it to be missed entirely, or for any number of reasons.
In no RCV contest has any candidate ever won with fewer votes than they earned in the first round. That would actually be impossible with RCV. When viewed apples to apples, it is no surprise that runoffs compare very poorly against RCV at the goal of upholding majority rule.