Primary election runoff plan could be expensive, experimental

By Jim Davenport
Published March 6th 2006 in Associated Press
COLUMBIA - The state Senate's solution for avoiding a federal legal challenge to the June 13 primary could cost taxpayers more money to pay for two runoffs while putting the state on a little-worn path to instant runoffs.

On Thursday, the Senate gave second reading to a bill moves federal runoffs back to four weeks after the primary, two weeks after state and local runoffs are held. The bill also allows overseas voters to rank candidate picks in a form of instant runoff now used only by Louisiana and Arkansas.

While four of the past five federal election cycles since 1996 did prompt runoffs, legislators bet this year's federal races won't because all the U.S. House races this year have incumbents seeking re-election. Neither of the state's U.S. senators are on the ballot.

"It was a gamble, but it was a gamble I was willing to take," said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens.

But the state might not need to take the gamble after all. A conversation Monday with the Justice Department might have eliminated the need for separate federal and state runoffs, Martin said.

A Feb. 27 letter from the agency's Civil Rights Division said officials had authorized filing a lawsuit against South Carolina under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 if runoff law changes aren't made by March 31.

The letter says South Carolina's current 14-day primary runoff period "plainly violates UOCAVA's requirement to ensure that absent uniformed services votes and overseas voters are afforded a meaningful opportunity to vote in South Carolina's run-off elections."

But Martin said when he talked to the Justice Department on Monday, officials seemed willing to go along with a two-week runoff schedule for state and federal elections if the state uses a type of instant runoff voting for all voters abroad.

In that system voters rank the candidates on the ballot. Those rankings would be counted by hand to determine who wins a runoff on the night of the primary.

FairVote and the Center for Voting and Democracy advocate using that type of system. Only Louisiana and Arkansas now do that with state and federal races, said Ryan O'Donnell, communications director for the Takoma Park, Md., group.

It's an "effective way to make sure our troops don't get left behind in our democracy," he said. "By embracing this method to ensure overseas votes count in runoffs, South Carolina could help lead the way for other states to do the same," O'Donnell said.

Only a few places use full-blown instant runoff voting to eliminate delayed runoff elections. For instance, Burlington, Vt., is using that system in its mayoral race Tuesday.

Trying ranked voting could help legislators decide if the state wants to move to instant runoffs, Martin said. It could "save taxpayers some money and save candidates some money," he said. "It has to potential for being a really good system."

Justice Department lawyers also want more voters overseas to be able to vote by e-mail or fax, but that raises concerns about ballot privacy and security, Martin said.

"I'm not going to do something that compromises someone's ballot," Martin said.

Holding a two-part runoff would mean the state has to open voting precincts and pay for poll workers three times in some primaries.

A statewide primary runoff alone costs $650,000, according to the state Election Commission. The federal runoff would add. For instance, a 2001 primary to replace the late U.S. Rep. Floyd Spence cost $165,000, said Marci Andino, the commission's executive director.

The idea of a split primary runoff is unsettling for some.

"You'd confuse the daylights out of" voters, said Neal Thigpen, a Francis Marion University political science professor who served on the Election Commission for 16 years. At the same time, a dual runoff system could reduce already low turnout, Thigpen said.

State Election Commission: