Dr. John Cox won a decisive victory in last week’s runoff election for the Democratic Party nomination for State Superintendent of Instruction, gaining 62.9 percent of the vote and beating challenger Dr. Freda Deskin by some 25,000 votes out of almost 96,000 cast.
It was a convincing victory, with one big caveat — the 60,377 votes received by Dr. Cox represented about 1 out of 15 (6.7 percent) of eligible Democratic voters. Turnout for the runoff race was down 42.8 percent from the initial primary, where Dr. Cox and Dr. Deskin led a field of four candidates. With turnout falling so dramatically, is it time for Oklahoma to consider a better way to decide multi-candidate elections?
The problem with runoffs
Paltry turnout was endemic to all the races in the primary runoff elections. There were 16 contests for state and federal office – 9 Republican, 7 Democratic – in which no candidate won an outright majority in June’s initial primary election. Based on data supplied by the State Election Board (see Learn More/Do More section for links):
- Average turnout was 18.1 percent. In 11 of the 16 runoff races, less than 20 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Turnout ranged from a high of 30.4 percent in the Republican runoff for HD 38 to a low of 10.7 percent in the Democratic runoff for the US Senate.
- In 4 of the 6 districts in which the winner of the runoff automatically won election to the legislature because the other party hadn’t nominated a candidate, turnout was under 25 percent (SD 22, HD 69, HD 88, HD 89).
- The average change in turnout between June and August was -32.4 percent, with the steepest drops occurring in HD 43 (-46.2 percent) and SD 22 (-44.1 percent). Turnout dropped between the initial primary vote and the runoff in every race but one (HD 89, which increased from 15.9 to 16.4 percent).
- In 4 races, the runner-up in June emerged as the winner in August. In two of those, the leading candidate in June won more votes in the initial primary than the eventual winner received in August (Tom Guild in CD 5 and Melissa Abdo in HD 69).
Unfortunately, there is nothing exceptional about this year’s Oklahoma runoffs. A study published last year by the Center for Voting and Democracy examined all primary runoffs in federal House and Senate elections from 1994 to 2012. It found that turnout decreased in 162 of 168 primary runoffs, or 96.4 percent. The average decline in turnout was 35.6 percent, and was greater for Senate races (40.2 percent) than House races (34.9 percent).
Between June and August, average turnout dropped 32.4 percent.”
As the study notes, the main argument for runoff elections is that they improve representation by allowing primary voters to select a candidate with broad popular support. However, the consistently steep drop in turnout in runoffs defeats that purpose, “often plung(ing) so low that the democratic legitimacy of the elections is cast into doubt.” In addition to low turnout, runoff races drive up the cost of elections substantially for candidates and taxpayers. The Election Board estimates that the runoff election cost the state $800,000 to $1 million, with additional costs incurred by the counties.
There are better ways to decide elections
Oklahoma is one of only nine states, all in the South, that maintain a primary runoff system. Although doing away with runoff elections is unlikely, there are reforms to the runoff system that should be considered. The simplest option is to lower the runoff threshold to 40 percent from the current 50 percent. That would still ensure that a fringe candidate in a multi-candidate race could not be nominated with 15 – 20 percent of the primary vote, while reducing the number of races that go to a runoff. This year in Oklahoma, no candidate received 40 percent of the vote in just six initial primary contests.
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 Oklahoma, this would have the added benefit of giving a voice to the growing number of independent voters who are shut out of the primary system.
A final alternative, one that is widely favored by electoral experts and democracy advocates, is the instant-runoff, known also as transferable vote or preferential 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.
According to University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie, instant-runoff elections improve the democratic process by allowing voters to more fully express their electoral preferences. It also encourages 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.
While switching to an instant runoff system would involve start-up costs to update the state’s voting machines, the switch would likely pay for itself within just a few election cycles in savings from doing away with separate runoffs every two years.
Adopting either the jungle primary or instant-runoff system would ensure that the winning candidate enjoys majority support without the added cost and diminished turnout of a runoff. Unless we are satisfied with candidates being decided by a miniscule portion of the electorate, it’s a change Oklahoma should seriously consider.