Last week, Oklahomans went to the polls to decide 13 legislative primaries and one Congressional primary where no candidate received a majority in the initial primary ballot in June. More precisely, a few Oklahomans went to the polls. Less than one in five registered voters – 19.5 percent – voted in the runoff races in their district. In only one district, SD 19, did turnout exceed 26 percent.
As can be seen from the table, overall turnout in the 14 districts fell by 31.6 percent, or nearly one-third, between June and August. In all but one district, turnout for the runoff was lower than in the primary election. The exception was in SD 41, the highly-publicized contest in Edmond where Adam Pugh defeated Paul Blair. Since barely one in five registered Republicans voted in the initial primary in SD 41 in June, the bar for increased turnout in the runoff wasn’t that high. Three other runoff races saw fairly modest drops in participation, including Republican primaries in SD 19 (Enid) and HD 85 (Edmond) and the Democratic primary in HD 97 (Oklahoma City). Meanwhile, in eight races, turnout plunged by over one-third. The biggest drops were mostly in Tulsa-area seats (SD 39, HD 16, HD 67, HD 60, SD 25), where voters turned out in larger numbers in June to vote for Tulsa’s Mayor in an open primary.
The drop in turnout was not unusual or unexpected. In the 16 races that were decided by runoffs in 2014, turnout dropped by an average of 32.4 percent from June to August and fell in every race but one (in that instance, turnout in the Democratic runoff for HD 89 rose by 20 votes). In 11 of the 16 races, less than twenty per cent of voters showed up for the runoff. In 2012, turnout fell in all 10 legislative and Congressional runoff elections by an average of 26.2 percent.
Nor is this phenomenon unique to Oklahoma. A 2013 study by the Center for Voting and Democracy examined all primary runoffs in federal House and Senate elections from 1994 to 2012 and found that turnout decreased in 165 of 171 contests. The same study found that the longer the gap between the initial primary round and the runoff, the more turnout is likely to fall. Oklahoma moved its initial primaries from July to June in 2012, creating the current two-month gap.
In addition to the fundamental democratic tenet that elections should be decided by more voters, not fewer, there are other arguments against the runoff. One is the substantial cost to both candidates and the state of holding runoff elections. In 2014, the State Election Board estimated that the runoff election cost the state as much as $1 million, with additional costs incurred by the counties. The 2016 runoff election will be less expensive because there were no statewide runoffs this year, but the Election Board estimates that the cost will still exceed $500,000.
Low turnout elections also tend to reward more ideologically extreme candidates who are better able to rally hardcore party supporters. This year, Lisa Kramer in SD 25 and Toni Hasselback in SD 31 were Republicans who were seen as more moderate candidates and finished first on the initial ballot, but lost in the runoff to more extreme challengers. There were similar outcomes in 2012 and 2014.
Oklahoma is one of only seven states, all in the South, that uses a primary runoff system. As we’ve discussed before, there are several good options for replacing the runoff, such as a nonpartisan top-two primary system; an instant runoff with ranked choice voting; or simply declaring the candidate with the most votes the winner, even they don’t have majority support.
By keeping the primary runoff, Oklahoma makes elections more expensive and ensures that important races are decided by a significantly shrunken electorate. It’s time for a change.