Opinion: Instant runoff’s easier way to pick election winners

Georgia has long demanded that candidates demonstrate broad support by winning an election majority. This expectation most recently came into play in the special election to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell. The leader among the 18 candidates, Democrat Jon Ossoff, came tantalizingly close with 48.1 percent. The failure of any candidate to break 50 percent necessitated a runoff on June 20 much to the dismay of television watchers who continue to be deluged with millions of dollars of ads. 

A handful of American cities have experimented with an alternate way to ensure that the winner receives majority support. San Francisco pioneered the instant runoff, also called ranked choice voting, a decade ago and last November Maine became the first state to adopt this innovation. 

Ranked choice voting allows voters to indicate not just their first preference but also additional ones. Most of the dozen or so cities that have implemented the instant runoff allow voters to rank three choices, but some countries with ranked choice voting allow more preferences to be indicated. 

If a candidate gets a majority, the election is over. But if no one gets a majority, then with ranked choice voting the ballots cast for the least successful candidate get inspected and awarded to candidates ranked second by these voters. The process of eliminating unpopular candidates and reallocating their ballots to second or third choices continues until someone receives a majority, or the ballot choices have been exhausted. Some voters may not exercise all their options meaning that their ballots cannot be reallocated if their first choice is unsuccessful. 

Here’s how ranked choice voting would work in the Sixth District. The least successful candidate, Andre Pollard, got 55 votes. His ballots would be reassigned to his supporters’ second preferences. But Pollard’s supporters are too few to give any remaining candidate a majority. The next least successful candidate, Alexander Hernandez drew 121 votes and his supporters would have their second preferences credited and so the process of reassigning votes from unsuccessful candidates would proceed until Ossoff or one of the Republicans had a majority. 

Several features of the instant runoff make it more appealing than holding a second vote nine weeks after the initial balloting. The need for a return to the polls is eliminated. Back in the days of the solid Democratic South, runoffs often attracted more voters than the initial primary. That pattern has become far less prevalent, although special elections like the one in the 6th District are more likely to see a turnout similar to that in the first round. In some runoffs turnout has dropped by as much as 90 percent from the earlier round. The runoff winner gets a majority but it is usually a majority of a smaller turnout so the winner may get fewer votes than the leader got in the primary. The larger primary turnout may have been more representative of the district’s preferences. 

A second advantage is that the cost of a second round of voting is saved. In some counties, a runoff costs 60 percent as much as the initial vote.

Third, ranked choice voting allows the vacancy to be filled more quickly. Voters in the 6th District have had no representation since Tom Price resigned. That lack of representation will continue until June 21, about five months since Price’s resignation. 

Instant runoffs do not ensure the selection of the Condorcet winner – the candidate who could beat all the others head-to-head. But they create the potential for someone who finished third or lower in first preferences to win. 

Finally, instant runoffs encourage sincere voting. Voters can award first choice to their top preference rather than voting strategically for a lesser choice in hopes of defeating a particularly disliked candidate.  

Is there a downside to replacing the runoff with ranked choice voting? Yes, if you work in campaigns your period of employment will be shortened by two months. Shorter campaigns will also result in less money for media buyers and for television stations that will have to replace political ads.

Charles S. Bullock III is Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia.

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