On Tuesday, May 24th, voters across the state of Texas were asked to return to the polls for several runoff elections. These runoffs--where the top two vote-getters from the primary election face off-- were triggered when no candidate received a majority of votes in that election. This year, Texas paid for statewide runoff elections for both parties’ nominee for railroad commissioner, as well as runoffs to decide party nominees in various U.S. House and state legislative districts, among other positions. Since the vast majority of Texas’ Congressional districts are safe for one party or the other, these elections are often much more important than the general election in November.
Despite the decisive nature of these runoff elections, Tuesday’s turnout was dismal with less than 4 percent of registered voters participating. That is a 20.3 percentage point drop from the primary election that was held on March 1st. This year’s steep decline between the primary and runoff elections is no fluke. Between 2008 and 2014, turnout has consistently dropped anywhere between 26-40 percentage points from the primary elections to the runoff elections that happen weeks later. In addition, taxpayers shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they are on the hook for the tab to pay for an extra election, in which just a sliver of the population participated.
Costly, low-turnout runoffs are commonplace in Texas and other southern states where rules requiring majority winners in party primaries have become engrained in the political process. While critics of runoff elections often call for eliminating a majority requirement to avoid runoffs altogether, there is a better solution available.
Rather than doing away with consensus winners in primaries, Texas should adopt ranked choice voting.
Ranked choice voting is also known as “instant-runoff voting” because cities across the nation have often adopted it to replace runoffs. It allows voters to rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice. 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. Texan voters would still get the consensus results that runoffs are meant to provide, but without the associated low turnout and high costs.Other southern states have turned to ranked primary ballots in a limited fashion for military and overseas voters to deal with the short turn-around for sending and receiving ballots in the case of a runoff. In 2014, Alabama joined Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina in using ranked ballots for military and overseas voters in federal primary elections. For these elections, overseas voters 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.
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.
Texas legislators and election officials at the very least should consider using ranked ballots for military and overseas voters to give those voters a stronger voice in the democratic process and 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. No doubt, Texas taxpayers can likely think of better ways to spend the millions of dollars the state would save, while avoiding low-turnout runoffs like the one we saw on Tuesday.