When August 23rd rolls around next month, you can be sure that lots of things will be on Oklahomans’ minds: kids going back to school, the upcoming Labor Day weekend, and the start of college football season, to name a few. What probably won’t be on the minds of most Oklahomans are the primary runoff elections that will be held in a handful of districts across the state that day. Yet these run-off elections, decided by a shrunken electorate, will have a decisive impact on who ends up representing these districts in the Legislature.
There will be 14 runoff elections this August in races where no candidate won over 50 percent of the vote in the June 28th primary. Eleven of these will be Republican runoffs — seven for the Senate and four for the House — along with two Democratic House runoffs and a Democratic runoff for the Fifth Congressional District. Interestingly, while the number of candidates filing for legislative and Congressional races surged from 311 in 2014 to 388 in 2016, there will be fewer runoffs this year (14) than in 2014 (16). In races that will be decided by a runoff, the vote total of the leading candidate in the initial primary ranged from a low of 33.47 percent for Republican Tom Gann in HD 8 to a high of 49.89 percent for Republican Adam Pugh in SD 41.
Oklahoma is one of only seven states, all in the South, that uses a primary runoff system to decide party nominees when no candidate wins an outright majority in the initial primary. The most significant problem with the primary runoff system is that turnout drops significantly in virtually every runoff election. A 2013 study by the Center for Voting and Democracy examined all primary runoffs in federal House and Senate elections from 1994 to 2012. Turnout decreased in 165 of 171 primary runoffs. The average decline in turnout was 35.6 percent. In Oklahoma, we found that in 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 11 of the 16 races, less than twenty per cent of voters showed up for the runoff; in the Democratic contest for the U.S. Senate seat, barely one in ten Democrats (10.7 percent) showed up for the runoff.
“In addition to low turnout, runoff races drive up the cost of elections substantially for candidates and taxpayers.”
With reduced turnout, runoff elections are more easily won by candidates who appeal to a narrow but highly-mobilized base. This tends to benefit the more ideologically extreme candidates, even if they came second on the initial ballot. A recent example of this was the 2014 Republican primary election in House District 69. Melissa Abdo, a moderate, was ahead on the first ballot by 15 points over Chuck Strohm, a hard-line conservative, in an initial primary that had 27.6 percent turnout. In the runoff, turnout fell to 16.5 percent and Strohm won with 53.5 percent, even though he received less votes in the runoff than Abdo got in the initial primary election.
In addition to low turnout, runoff races drive up the cost of elections substantially for candidates and taxpayers. The Election Board estimates that the 2014 runoff election cost the state $800,000 to $1 million, with additional costs incurred by the counties.
Oklahoma has better options
Oklahoma could adopt one of several proven alternatives to the current runoff system. The simplest option is to do away with the runoff and award the nomination to the candidate with the most votes in the primary — as is already done in general elections. Many years ago, when party primaries attracted long lists of candidates, that might have routinely led to candidates winning primaries with small shares of the vote, but it is now rare for more than three or four candidates to file for any seat. This year in Oklahoma, in just three initial primary contests did one candidate fail to win 40 percent of the vote.
A second option, currently in effect with some variation in Louisiana, California and Washington, is known as a “non-partisan blanket primary” or “jungle primary”, in which all candidates compete in a single primary election, with the two top candidates, regardless of party, advancing to the general election. In 2015, Senator David Holt introduced legislation, SB 311, to adopt a jungle primary system, but the bill was denied a hearing in committee.
A final alternative, one that is widely favored by electoral experts and democracy advocates, is the instant-runoff, known also as transferable vote, preferential voting, or ranked-choice voting. In an instant-runoff system, currently used in several American cities and a number of foreign democracies, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate achieves a majority among first choices, the bottom-ranked candidate is eliminated and their voters’ ballots are distributed to their second or subsequent choice, until a majority is achieved. The instant run-off improves the democratic process by allowing voters to more fully express their preferences. This system also motivates candidates to engage a broader range of voters, knowing that victory may depend on being the second preference of voters who support other candidates. In that way, instant runoff primaries might discourage negative campaigning and ease the intense partisanship and polarization that mars current politics. An initiative petition for ranked-choice voting for all Congressional and legislative races will be on the ballot this fall in Maine.
Adopting either the jungle primary or instant-runoff system would ensure that winning candidates enjoy majority support without the added cost and diminished turnout of a runoff. Unless we are satisfied with candidates being decided by a tiny portion of the electorate, these are changes Oklahoma should seriously consider.