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.