Running Off With Victory
Chris Cilliza made a pretty pithy attack on run-off elections the other day, basically dismissing them as either relics of a pre-Jim-Crow South or an unnecessary burden on state election officials.
However, I think runoffs are a good idea – but only if they are instantenous.
The point of a runoff election is to ensure that a majority of the voters actually wanted the candidate that got elected. And there is legitimate democratic value in guaranteeing a majority mandate for whoever wins. In the interest of speed, I’ll skip that normative discussion.
Currently, there are a variety of run-offs in the United States, all of them requiring a second election to be held between 2 weeks and 2 months after the original election, usually with the top 2 candidates (or sometimes the top candidates from each party, in particular versions of open/jungle primaries).
There are some run-offs even in this situation that don’t make sense – like North Carolina’s requirement of 40% instead of 50% to win an election. Is it any more valid that you beat your opponent by 41%-39% than by 39%-37%? And if 41% is valid enough to avoid a runoff, what if both candidates get over 40%? If you’re going to do a run-off requiring a separate election, let’s at least stick to a majority threshold, since only one candidate could ever get a majority.
Some countries, most notably Australia in its lower House of Representatives, using a system of voting that is variably called preferential voting, Alternate Vote, or instant-runoff voting. It’s the system that makes most since to me, and one I’d rather see us adopt for all elections.
The idea is simple – rather than voting for one candidate, you rank the candidates in order of preference. For example, you might prefer the Tea Party candidate, but you’d then mark your ballot showing your second and third choices, and so on. Then, after the votes are counted, if the Tea Party doesn’t win a majority, the ballots cast for the candidate with the least number of votes gets redistributed to their second choice. This process continues until someone gets a majority.
This system would avoid the sense of wasted votes or spolier candidacies. It would ensure every winner has a majority of the voters. And it would be a means of avoiding the expense of a second round of voting in a primary or general election.
The main drawback would be a media one – not every election tally would be finished on Election Night. In fact, depending on the closeness of the election and the size of the ballot paper, it might take weeks to complete the count. But then, it already takes weeks in some cases to get an accurate and official count.
The system we have isn’t perfect, but neither are the alternatives. That’s why other countries do it differently, as do other states.
But dismissing the runoff as a relic of the past and favoring a winner-take-all plurality outcome in elections to save money and ensure dramatic Election Night coverage is hardly democratic and quite a self-serving thing for Twitter-happy journalists to be advocating.