Ranked-Choice Voting Could Improve Alabama’s Primaries
The Alabama Republican Senate primary runoff concluded last month after neither of the top two candidates received the necessary majority to declare victory. The state spent millions of dollars so voters could go to the polls once again to decide which candidate would compete in the general election in November.
Unfortunately, this outcome costs more than money. In addition to the millions of dollars associated with running a second election, Alabama was left with four extra weeks of infighting and exhausting campaign ads. The Alabama Republican Party, which currently dominates the state, specifically seeks to “adequately fund government without undue waste” as a part of their official platform. This means making sure spending is done prudently, efficiently and effectively, but the current runoff system misses that mark.
The downsides of runoffs could be glossed over if such elections were rare, but they have become the norm rather than the outlier. Just look at the last few election cycles: In 2020, the U.S. Senate seat now held by Tommy Tuberville required a runoff. Runoffs also were needed in 2018 to decide the Republican nominees for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Luther Strange and Roy Moore faced off in the 2017 Senate special election runoff. And in 2014, elections for secretary of state and auditor went to a second round of voting. The list goes on, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Alabama should use an instant-runoff for its primaries.
Under such a system, the outcome would be decided with just one election, instead of voters having to wait four weeks. Voters would rank the candidates according to their own preferences—a process known as ranked-choice voting (RCV). Once the ballots are collected, the first-choice votes would be tallied, and if one candidate earns a majority, they would be declared the winner.
However, if no candidate were to receive a majority of votes, then the last-place candidate would be eliminated, with the votes tallied immediately, this time using voters’ second choice. This process would continue until one candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote.
It may sound complicated, but this reform effort has gained a lot of steam recently, and it is hardly a revolutionary idea. RCV is merely a slight reconfiguration of the system Alabama already has in place.
For example, under the current system, Mike Durant’s supporters had to go back to the polls weeks after the fact and cast another ballot for Britt or Brooks. But with an instant-runoff, Durant supporters could rank Britt or Brooks as a second choice, and the need for a runoff disappears.
Instant-runoffs offer a number of advantages.
First, we know who the winner is as soon as the votes are counted. Instead of another round of mudslinging, candidates can shift their focus to the general election.
Second, instant-runoffs would increase the number of voters selecting the nominees. Primaries almost always see incredibly low turnout, with unofficial numbers for this year’s race around 23 percent for the first round and a mere 13 percent in the second round.
Third, it saves taxpayer money by eliminating the need for the second round of voting. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill stated that any statewide election costs approximately $5.5 million. Runoffs therefore immediately double the cost of primary elections, regardless of the number of voters. Approximately 850,000 ballots were cast in the first round of the primary elections. That’s about $6.50 per ballot. Paired with the typical low turnout of runoffs, that price jumped to about $13.50 per ballot as a little over 400,000 voters participated in the second round.
As previously mentioned, Alabama has held statewide runoffs in five election cycles since 2012. Taken together, instant runoffs could have saved Alabama around $20 million over the last decade. The savings are even greater when factoring in the cost of administering the dozens of local runoff elections needed to decide seats in the state legislature and the United States House of Representatives.
Finally, Alabama’s existing runoff system already recognizes the value of majority support for electoral winners—something many other states remain slow to appreciate. By simplifying the primary with an instant-runoff election, Alabama would once again establish itself as an innovator and a national leader.