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It's time to give primary runoffs the boot

Runoff elections are costly and have low voter turnout.

Beth Hladick
October 13, 2022

The topline:  As party primary nominees prepare for their final November face-off, most congressional races have already been decided. While much political coverage is now focused on who is on the ballot, it’s essential to pay attention to how candidates won in party primaries — many with less than majority support. 

As the congressional primary election season comes to a close, media attention has turned to forecasting and predicting outcomes in the general election. Though less publicized, the overwhelming majority of districts (85%) have already been decided in partisan primary elections in safe congressional districts, due to both partisan gerrymandering and geographic self-sorting of the electorate along urban and rural divides. 

But it’s not just about who is elected and what party will be in power. What’s also important, albeit sobering, is how our officials are elected, and the incentives under which they’ll govern. 

According to a newly published report from FairVote, 120 winners advanced from U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and statewide primary elections with only plurality support. On average, these candidates won with 39% of the vote (far less than majority support), meaning more people voted for someone other than the winner.

This not only incentivizes candidates to appeal to a smaller constituency than the jurisdiction at large, but it makes votes cast in general elections — where turnout is historically higher and more representative — far less impactful. In 2022 primaries, more than one in four plurality winners had the benefit of being in a race considered “safe” for their party, all but guaranteeing they will win a general election after not even getting a majority of their party’s support.

This is an extreme but all-too-common example of how our government doesn’t represent the people it serves.

Further, nine states hold primary runoff elections if a winner doesn’t receive 50% of the vote (or in the case of North Carolina, 30% of the vote). While runoffs help to achieve consensus winners, they have several problematic qualities, namely that they are costly to administer and typically have low and unrepresentative voter turnout. 

In 2022, 22 districts held runoff elections for U.S. House contests across Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas. On average, just 4.6% of the districts’ voting age Americans cast ballots to determine nominees, down slightly from an average of 5.7% in 2020 runoffs. 

Even in states with statewide runoff contests, turnout didn’t fare much better. In Alabama’s runoff to determine the GOP nominees for an open U.S. Senate seat, secretary of state, and auditor, and the Democratic nominee for governor, just under 13% of registered voters cast a ballot — the third lowest turnout in over three decades of runoff elections in the state. According to the Alabama Secretary of State, the estimated cost to Alabama taxpayers footing the bill for a second statewide election is about $5.5 million

These numbers are not unique to Alabama or 2022 midterms. Historic data suggests turnout typically declines by 38% between primary elections and primary runoff elections, and an average of 43.5% amongst people of color. Estimates from analysis on previous Texas runoffs found costs can increase by 50% or more. In the case of safe seats, these small, unrepresentative, and costly elections have disproportionate influence on who is elected to office. 

Plurality winners and primary runoff elections are two election design choices that can be mitigated through more efficiently designed election systems: ranked choice voting (also known as RCV or instant runoff voting). Simply put, RCV allows states to hold an “instant” runoff election on election day by allowing voters to rank their choices. If no candidate receives a majority outright, the candidate with the fewest first-choice support is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as their top choice will have their next choice counted. This process continues until there is a majority winner. 

In addition to saving voters a second trip to the voting booth, RCV helps reduce costs by eliminating the need to hold a second runoff election (often on a statewide basis). It also leads to more representative and consensus outcomes. 

Six southern states already use ranked choice voting to enfranchise military and overseas voters during their elections, and dozens of other jurisdictions use RCV in cities and counties across the U.S. Maine uses RCV statewide for all federal elections, as well as for federal and state primaries, and Alaska uses RCV in general elections to determine winners from a top-four nonpartisan primary. The Alaska model has the added benefit of bringing more choice and competition to the general election where turnout is highest. 

If you’re frustrated with the lack of choice and representation on your ballot this fall, remember the primary election process that yielded such an outcome. It’s deserving of scrutiny, and it’s why jurisdictions from Alaska to New York City have opted to reform their elections.