Instant runoffs offer states a chance to increase security and save money
Eleven states currently use runoffs in some capacity — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Vermont. That accounts for 98 U.S. House seats, 22 U.S. Senate seats, 11 governorships and over 1,600 state legislative seats that are subject to a second round of balloting.
Implementing instant runoffs would not be a revolutionary change to the way elections are held in these states. With ranked choice ballots, the runoff would happen after the first round of balloting, instead of weeks after, as there would only need to be one election instead of two. With only one round of balloting, the opportunity for any sort of fraud or interference that would harm the integrity of elections is immediately cut in half.
Voters would rank order as many — or as few — candidates as they want. Then, if no candidate received a majority, the last place candidate would be dropped, and those who voted for them would have their votes reallocated to their second choice. This would continue until one candidate received at least 50 percent of the votes, which emulates the current electoral process. Adopting this reform can offer greater security to elections at a critical juncture in American history.
Cost savings are another critical aspect of this reform.
In 2014, then-Alabama Secretary of State Jim Bennett stated that any statewide election costs approximately $3 million. Costs have only gone up over time. Outgoing Secretary of State John Merrill noted that the 2022 runoffs cost the state $5.5 million. Furthermore, a recent study concluded runoffs cost $7 per voter in Texas and doubled costs in Louisiana, about $5 million each time. It is likely these costs will only continue to increase over time.
Since 2012, Alabama has had statewide runoffs in 2014, 2017, 2018, 2020 and 2022. Mississippi and Georgia have had statewide runoffs in four different election cycles each. Texas has required statewide runoffs in every major election cycle since 2012. The list goes on. Collectively, that amounts to tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on a second round of elections that could be eliminated with instant runoff voting.
This multi-million dollar cost is even more egregious when considering participation rates in runoff elections. Turnout almost always declines in runoffs, sometimes reaching less than 10 percent as voters grow weary and disengaged from multiple rounds of voting. But each statewide election costs the same whether turnout is 10 percent or 90 percent. This makes these elections not only expensive, but a highly inefficient use of already limited resources.
Importantly, implementing such a change does not increase the cost associated with each election. One study by FairVote showed that jurisdictions adopting ranked choice voting did not see their costs of administering elections go up afterward. The savings from moving to instant runoffs, thereby eliminating an extra round of balloting, could then be used to provide greater security in elections through upgrades to election technology, training for poll workers, physical security for election workers or any other need that arises.
Creating cost savings at the state level is vital as private funding of elections creates opportunities for misuse and inequitable allocation, and many states have recently banned it. Furthermore, funding from the federal government is erratic and often comes with limits on how it can be spent. Utilizing instant runoffs allows states to provide more, much-needed funding for their own elections, which then allows them to spend money in a way that suits their specific needs and does not require increasing taxes or reallocating funds from other areas.
As other states, like Alaska and Maine, experiment with different reforms, others should consider implementing similar changes to their election procedures. Adopting this more streamlined method of the process already in place in a number of states would increase election funding and security without intervention from private industries or the federal government. Then, election workers can better provide the free, fair and secure elections Americans deserve.