Graham & LeMieux promote the return of the runoff — why not an instant one?

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It is no mystery that voting in primary elections can be based more on strategy than preference, leading to the election of people who may not in fact represent the views of a majority of voters — a trend that, in the opinion of George Lemieux and Bob Graham — could be prevented through the return of Florida’s runoff primary.

 In a Wednesday op-ed to the Tampa Bay Times, LeMieux and Graham argue that the elimination of Florida’s runoff primary has resulted in the promotion of candidates who have strong appeal to a narrow constituency, or candidates with high name recognition who do not necessarily reflect the views of voters. 

Indeed, it is a rare day in primary season where pundits don’t speculate if candidates are going to be chosen based on November electability versus appeal to the base, or vice versa.

Runoff elections narrow the original primary playing field to the top two vote-getters, guaranteeing that those who win a primary do so with at least a majority of their party voters’ support. Ideally, according to LeMieux and Graham, this would ensure that the two contestants who square off in November represent “the broadest consensus of approval within their own party,” and would reduce the likelihood of “fringe, unvetted and unqualified candidates sneaking by their party’s electorate.”

LeMieux and Graham both know how the structure of primary elections impacts the ultimate result.  Graham himself had been a runner-up in the 1978 gubernatorial primary — in a crowded field of seven — but prevailed in the runoff and became Florida’s 38th governor, leaving office with an 83% approval rating.   The same pattern was true for LeRoy Collins, Reubin Askew, and Lawton Chiles in their respective elections for governor and US senator.   Less can be said about which candidates would not have held office had runoffs still been in place past 2001.

 Today, 11 states provide for primary runoff elections in one form or another: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Vermont.   In most of these states, a runoff between the top two candidates is only triggered if no candidate gets a majority of the vote in the primary; and usually occurs about three weeks after the primary.

Florida’s runoff was eliminated amidst criticism that it cost too much to organize, and that low turnout in runoffs meant that candidates were selected by too few people.  Other critics suggested that dumping the runoff could act as a form of campaign finance reform as it would reduce the number of maximum donations that could be granted.

In my opinion, all of these concerns could be addressed through the implementation of an “instant” runoff in which voters go to the polls one time and cast votes for their first, second and third choice candidates.  

This solution would mean no addition of costly election days, would maintain maximum turnout, and would prevent the addition of new campaign finance cycles.

It would also mean that fewer voters would cast a ballot based only upon fear of vote splitting.

Here is the classic example of an instant runoff in action: Ballots are first counted based on each voter’s first preference. If a candidate attains more than half of these votes, he or she wins. If not, the lowest ranking candidate is eliminated and the ballots are recounted, assigning the second choice vote from each eliminated ballot to one of the remaining candidates.  This continues until one candidate obtains more than half of the votes.  In other words: this is a same-day election that achieves what a runoff would do.

The instant runoff, also called “preferential voting”, is how Australians select their state and federal representatives; how the Presidents of India and Ireland are elected; and how municipal leaders win office in Portland, Maine; San Francisco and Oakland, California; and Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota.  It is also how the Oscar for Best Picture is chosen by members of the Academy.

In response to his op-ed, I asked LeMieux what he thought of this alternative voting system.

“The instant primary is attractive from a cost savings perspective,” said LeMieux, “It deserves serious consideration.”

LeMieux and Graham suggested that the runoff primary could allay some problems derived from their perception that “lawmakers from both parties have hobbled the federal government with entrenched and extreme views.”

Whether a different electoral design could result in overall culture shift is still up for question, to me. But I don’t disagree that it could be a good start.