A week from today, voters in S.C. Senate District 39 will return to the polls to decide on a Democratic nominee in the race to succeed retiring Sen. John Matthews of Bowman.
The June 23 runoff election was necessitated when Vernon Stephens and Cindy Evans each received less than 50% of the vote in the June 9 primary. Stephens got 44.11% of the vote while Evans received 38.79%.
Unlike in a general election in which the candidate with the most votes wins, a primary election requires the winner to secure 50% plus one vote. That means in races featuring more than two candidates, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters is a real possibility. In South Carolina, runoffs are held on the Tuesday two weeks after the initial vote.
Candidates have reason to dislike the runoff process. Opponents of a particular candidate can load up the primary field in order to dilute the vote and force a second election on a day when history shows fewer people will turn out. The underdog gets the added publicity surrounding earning a place in the runoff and then works to get out his or her vote in numbers, knowing the likelihood that at least a percentage of the favorite’s voters will not return to vote.
It is not uncommon for the candidate squeaking into a runoff far behind the leader in the primary vote to make the runoff election very close – or to win.
Critics contend there is a better way: ranked-choice voting (or the instant runoff).
In races with more than two candidates, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. Ballots are counted for each voter's top choice. Losing candidates are eliminated and ballots for losing candidates are redistributed until one candidate is the top remaining choice of a majority of the voters. When the field is reduced to two, the “instant runoff” allows a comparison of the top two candidates head-to-head.
According to Fairvote.org: “Ranked-choice voting makes democracy more fair and functional. It works in a variety of contexts. It is a simple change that can have a big impact. With ranked-choice voting, voters can rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice. Candidates do best when they attract a strong core of first-choice support while also reaching out for second and even third choices. When used as an ‘instant runoff’ to elect a single candidate like a mayor or a governor, RCV helps elect a candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters. When used as a form of fair-representation voting to elect more than one candidate like a city council, state legislature or even Congress, RCV helps to more fairly represent the full spectrum of voters.”
While the system is logical and in fact could result in election of the candidate that better reflects the support of the majority, it is hard to sell to voters – and those making election law. There remains something powerfully important about selecting the one and only candidate you believe should hold an office – and then voting for that candidate alone.
And importantly, the runoff affords an opportunity for voters not participating in the initial election to have a say. In the District 39 race on June 9, 11,921 people cast ballots. That is only 20% of registered voters in a district that includes parts of five counties. Any registered voter no participating in the Republican primary a week ago can vote on June 23.
A high turnout may not be likely but the opportunity for voters is there via the a runoff.
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