Max West was an OK Policy summer intern. He is a recent graduate of Rogers State University with a degree in Public Affairs, and recently began law school at Oklahoma City University School of Law.
There were many surprising outcomes of the Oklahoma primary election in June. Some incumbents lost long-held seats, others came very close. We saw record turnout and even passed a medical marijuana state question. We also saw an unusually high number of primary races that failed to produce an outright winner and that will be decided in a runoff election later this month.
If history is a guide, many of the voters who flocked to the polls in June will sit out the election in August. This means that a shrunken electorate will get to decide which candidates will move on to become their party’s candidate, and in many cases win election for their entire district. Reduced turnout is one of several reasons why it is worth reconsidering the runoff and exploring other approaches to choosing our elected representatives.
So what is a runoff?
Oklahoma, along with six other states (all in the South), requires that a primary candidate receive an outright majority of votes (50 percent + 1) to advance to the general election. If no candidate reaches a majority in June, then the top two candidates in the primary go on to compete in a runoff election in late August. The winner of the runoff then goes on to the general election in November to compete against nominees from other parties.
There are a few drawbacks to this system, but the most significant is the drop in turnout that very commonly occurs between the primary and the runoff elections. This is not just a problem in Oklahoma runoffs; a 2016 report from FairVote looked at 190 congressional primary runoffs from 1994 to 2016 and found that turnout dropped in all but seven of these races, with the average drop in turnout being around 39 percent. Oklahoma’s runoff performance is pretty consistent with this trend. Of the 14 runoff races in 2016, turnout dropped in all but one, with the average drop being 31.6 percent, or nearly one-third. In ten of the 14 runoff races, less than 20 percent of eligible voters showed up. The stakes are even higher this year, as Oklahoma will have what could be a record-setting number of runoff elections – 46. Moreover, six of these runoff races (HD 10, HD 27. HD 30, HD 36, HD 38 and HD 99) will determine the winner of that office because there is no opponent from another party. With so much on the line, low turnout becomes an even greater concern.
There are a couple of possible reasons why this drop in turnout occurs in runoffs. One major factor is the length of time between the primary and the runoff. The FairVote report found that the more days between the two elections, the higher the drop in turnout. For states where this gap is 31 days or more, the median drop in turnout was more than three times higher than those states with a gap of 11 to 20 days. The gap in Oklahoma this year is 64 days.
Another drawback to runoff elections is the significant cost they impose on taxpayers. A statewide election can cost at least $1 million to administer. Runoffs also make it more expensive to run for office, as candidates competing in a runoff are then forced to increase campaigning during July and August in order to win the competitive runoff.
What other choices do we have?
There are multiple alternatives to our current primary runoff system. The “quick fix” would be to simply award the party nomination to the candidate who received the most votes – even if it wasn’t a majority – in their primary, getting rid of the need for a runoff altogether. This is known as single-member plurality voting and is the most commonly used method in the country. However, this system does have its imperfections. For instance, if we had used single-member plurality this year, Lori Callahan, the leader in a tight seven-person Republican primary in HD 30, would have been elected with just 20.07 percent of the vote. Alternately, we could lower the required vote percentage from 50 percent to 40 percent. If this had been the case for the 2018 primary, there would have been 20 fewer races going to a runoff. That being said, this does not fully solve the problem.
Another possible option is something called a “jungle primary”, or a nonpartisan blanket primary. This method forces all candidates running for a single office to compete in one pool of candidates, regardless of party affiliation, with the top two vote-getters moving on to the general election. These two final candidates could be from the same party or from different parties. This method is used in California and Washington, and Louisiana uses it when no one candidate gets 50 percent. Nebraska uses it for its state offices but not federal. But there are cons to this method as well. For instance, as a result of their jungle primary system, California’s majority party has faced considerable challenges in getting a candidate on the general election ballot in some districts. This is due to vote splitting among similar majority party candidates that allows two candidates from the minority party to move on to the general election.
A third option would be a method known as instant runoff voting (IRV), also known as ranked-choice voting or preferential voting. This method, which is favored by many political scientists and electoral reform advocates, allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-rank votes, the candidate with the least amount of first-rank votes is eliminated. The voters who chose this eliminated candidate then have their votes redistributed to their second-ranked candidate. This process is repeated until one candidate receives the majority of the redistributed votes. Multiple cities use this method for local elections, and Maine just recently used it for the first time in their June primary election. IRV is even used to decide winners of Academy Awards.
The instant runoff system is beneficial for many reasons in addition to the elimination of runoff elections. It forces candidates to appeal to a broader electorate since they could end up needing second or even third choice votes to win the race. As a result, some research has shown that people experienced less negative campaigning and more campaign civility when using IRV compared to standard plurality voting. This method also results in voters having a greater say in who represents them, as their voice is still heard even if their first choice is eliminated.
However, like all the voting systems mentioned before, IRV has its own drawbacks. One commonly-cited drawback is the voter exhaustion that can accompany a IRV election. This occurs when a voter does not rank all of the candidates on the ballot, which could be simply because they do not know about all of the candidates. So if the candidates that they did rank do not make it to the final round, their ballots are not used. This allows for some candidates to win without receiving the majority of the votes, which is exactly what IRV aims to avoid. In addition, just knowing that they are expected to rank all the candidates may deter some voters from going to the polls
Given the cost and abysmal turnout that plagues our runoff system, it should be much more of a concern to Oklahomans who value a more efficient and representative democracy. Moreover, some research has even shown that fewer elections can correlate with higher turnout rates. Changing our runoff system will ensure that the few are not able to determine the candidate who will be given power to represent the many.