Austin American-Statesman

A Better Way to Run a Runoff
By Caleb Kleppner 
April 19, 2000

Texans are known as practical voters and frugal taxpayers. But they just paid for an expensive and needless election.

That's because Texas had a statewide runoff election next week for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator. It cost taxpayers about $10 million on top of the cost of last monthÝs primary. If you think there has to a more efficient and less expensive way to nominate a candidate, youÝre right.

It's called an instant runoff, and it achieves the goal of the runoff primary ˝ a nominee supported by a majority of the voters ˝ in a single election.

This saves the taxpayers the cost of the election. It's easier for voters, who only have to turn out once, and it's easier for candidates, who only have to raise funds and campaign in one election.

It's also quite simple. When voters go to the polls, they cast a vote for their favorite candidate, but they also specify their runoff choice. If their favorite candidate gets eliminated, they get to support their next favorite in the "instant" runoff. Voters specify these choices by ranking candidates in order of choice: first choice, second choice, third choice.

Imagine that the Democratic primary had been a three-way race between Gene Kelly, Charles Gandy, and Don Clark. Since no one received an outright majority of the first choices, the instant runoff takes place. The candidate with the least number of votes, Clark, is eliminated, just like in the actual runoff.

Kelly and Gandy supporters get to continue to support their favorite candidate, but Clark supporters still can support their runoff choice, either Kelly or Gandy. The key to the instant runoff is that the rankings allow all voters, regardless of whom they supported as a first choice, to express a preference between Kelly and Gandy.

In the instant runoff, each voter's ballot counts for whichever candidate ˝ Kelly or Gandy ˝ was ranked higher on the ballot, and this produces a majority winner in a single election.

In addition to saving taxpayers millions of dollars in election costs, the instant runoff has three other important benefits:

  • It reduces negative campaigning and promotes reaching out to more voters because candidates know that winning may require being the runoff choice of their opponents' supporters.
  • It fulfills one goal of campaign finance reform because candidates don't need to raise more money for a second election.
  • It maximizes voter turnout since voters don't have to return to the polls for special runoff elections.

Because of these benefits, legislation for instant runoffs has recently been introduced in 5 states and passed in 2 localities. A charter review commission in Austin supported the use of instant runoffs in local elections, and the city council may place a charter amendment for instant runoffs on the ballot in November.

To save millions of tax dollars, reduce fundraising demands on candidates and avoid unnecessary runoff elections, the legislature should consider enacting instant runoffs for primary elections and allowing cities to use them for local elections.