Comparing RCV with Delayed Runoffs

What Are Delayed Runoffs?

In order to solve the problems associated with plurality elections, some states and communities have opted for a traditional two-round runoff system. If no one has a majority of votes in the first round election, the field of candidates is typically narrowed down to the two people receiving the highest number of votes, and a separate runoff election is held with the two remaining candidates. This theoretically ensures that one of the top two candidates will obtain a crucial majority of voters' support.

However, separate runoff elections typically produce lower turnout than in the first round election. Locales that use runoffs after the general election require voters to return to the polls a second time, often to vote in only one, low-profile race. This still means that in a first round election with a large number of candidates, a candidate can qualify for the second round election with a small fraction of voters' support. While it is true that the candidate will then have to earn a majority of voters' support in a second round to be elected, if the turnout is low in the runoff election, a majority needed to win will now represent a much smaller number of voters than in the first round election. Hence, a candidate can still be elected to office in a two-round runoff system while being disliked by a majority of voters.

In some communities the runoff system takes on a "primary" approach--that is to say the first round is conducted before the general election. Sometimes a candidate will receive over 50% in this "primary" and avoid facing a general election contest. Nonetheless, the concern remains that these first round primaries most often yield a low voter turnout, and candidates are then selected for the second round by a small percentage of the populace. A majority of voters in the second round runoff may then be faced with the prospect of selecting between two candidates that do not represent their views, further contributing to turnout declines.

Additionally, two-round runoff elections still preserve the "spoiler effect" and the problems linked to it. Again, with a crowded field of candidates in a first round election, voters must often make strategic calculations about which of their favored candidates is the most likely to make it into the second round election. This discourages voters from voting for their preferred candidate, as doing so may result in vote-splitting with a like-minded candidate, resulting in less favored candidates advancing to the second round runoff. These dynamics can lead to bizarre and undemocratic results in two-round runoff systems, given that a consensus candidate who is liked by a majority of voters can fail to make it to the top-two when challenged by two candidates with significantly smaller but more passionate support. This is especially likely when multiple like-minded candidates run against each other.

The costs of conducting this second round runoff can also be substantial, as jurisdictions must print ballots, recruit and train pollworkers, locate precincts, and prepare voting equipment -- not once, but twice. In addition, second round runoffs are often held shortly after the first round election, creating numerous administrative hurdles for election officials. For example, ballots must be printed quickly after the first round, but not until officials know who the top two vote-getters are. Likewise, this process can often disenfranchise overseas and absentee voters, who will not have enough time to return their ballots after they have been printed and mailed to them.

Lastly, two-round runoff elections require candidates to raise money twice, often requiring an influx of additional special interest contributions for the second round runoff. Coupled with low turnout in the runoff, this can allow these donors to leverage their campaign dollars for even greater influence, sometimes against the public interest. Similarly, well-organized groups who do not represent a majority of voters can take advantage of low turnout in the second round runoff to try and exert disproportionate influence over the result.

In contrast to this system, ranked choice voting (RCV), sometimes called instant runoff voting, simulates a series of runoffs on one ballot. By ranking candidates in order of preference, the voter expresses his/her will in each round of counting, rendering moot the need for a second election. In a traditional runoff system, if your candidate makes it to the runoff, you would continue to support that person by voting for him/her a second time. Similarly, under RCV, if your favorite candidate advances after the first round of counting, your ballot would continue to support him/her.

Under both systems, if your candidate does not advance to the runoff, you are forced to choose between the remaining candidates. RCV allows you to signify your support for an advancing candidate based on your rankings. Should your favorite candidate be defeated, your vote shifts to your second choice, just like a runoff. However, since the tallying is conducted on one ballot, taxpayers save the cost of a second election, voters don't have to return to the polls, and candidates don't need to fundraise and campaign for an extended period. Avoiding the turnout drop associated with second round elections also means that the majority required to win under RCV represents  the support of a much larger number of voters than in traditional runoffs.

How RCV Addresses Problems With Delayed Runoffs

RCV Reduces Election Administration Costs

With a traditional runoff system, a voter whose favorite candidate does not advance to the runoff essentially is able to express his or her second choice among the remaining candidates. RCV offers this same opportunity in a single election with a ranked ballot. Under RCV, voters rank candidates in order of preference on a single ballot making only one trip to the polls. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she is elected. If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. Voters who ranked the eliminated candidate first now have their ballots counted for their second choice. This process continues until one candidate earns a majority.

Because ranked choice voting accomplishes in one election what delayed runoffs do in two, governments, and therefore taxpayers, save time and money by not having to hold another election. 

San Francisco implemented RCV to replace city runoff elections in 2004 and has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars each year since that time. North Carolina implemented RCV for statewide judicial vacancy elections in 2007 and expects to see substantial savings.

RCV Improves Voter Turnout

Low voter turnout is often an issue that is brought up to criticize elections.  If only a minority of the population votes, and a minority of the voters determine the winner, then officials can be elected with only a small percentage of the population supporting them. 

Run-off elections fare even worse.  In many city and local elections a winner can only be declared when one candidate receives a majority.  If the general election fails to produce a majority winner, then a run-off must be held.  These subsequent elections historically have had extremely low turnout, with most voters not participating and thus further undermining the legitimacy of the election. 

RCV is a way to change this trend.  It completely eliminates the need for subsequent run-off elections by allowing voters to rank candidates by preference.  This was used with great success in the recent San Francisco city elections.  Run-offs previously garnered sporadic participation and added much to the cost of city elections.  Statistically, turnout jumped by over 300% with the introduction of RCV. 

RCV Reduces Negative Campaigning

The winner-take-all, first past the post method of elections has led to a dramatic descent into the worst forms of partisan, negative campaigning and mud-slinging.  This is mostly a result of the strategies that have recently been very successful in winning elections: viciously attack your opponent and whip up as much support from your base voters as possible. 

RCV is a way to change the equation.  In an RCV election, a candidate can benefit from maintaining good relations with their opponents.  A candidate would want to search for common ground with voters who may not support and convince them to rank them as their second choice. The best example of this is the 2011 RCV election in Portland, ME. When talking about his campaign Mayor Michael Brennan said no voter was off limits, if a voter had the yard sign of one of his opponents in their lawn he would still approach them, make his case to be their second choice, and ask them to also put up one of his yard signs. This atmosphere of respect and cooperation leads to debate on real issues facing voters instead of personal attacks.