Public confidence in elections continues to drop while voters are concerned about the elections interferenceballot changes treat and the dissemination of false information. To compound the problem, free, fair and secure elections cost money, and election workers must tackle these issues with very limited resources. However, ranked ballots with an instant second round may offer a number of states a way to increase election security without spending additional money.
Eleven States currently use runoff to some extent – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont. That’s 98 US House seats, 22 US Senate seats, 11 governorships and more than 1,600 state legislative seats up for a second ballot.
Implementing instant ballots would not constitute a revolutionary change in the way elections are conducted in these states. With preferential ballots, the second round would take place after the first round of voting, instead of weeks after, because there would only need to be one election instead of two. With just one ballot, the possibility of any sort of fraud or interference that would harm the integrity of the election is immediately cut in half.
Voters would rank as many – or as few – candidates as they wish. Then, if no candidate obtained a majority, the last candidate would be eliminated and those who had voted for him would have their votes reallocated to their second choice. This would continue until a candidate obtains at least 50% of the vote, which mimics the current electoral process. Passing this reform can provide greater election security at a critical time in American history.
Cost savings are another essential aspect of this reform.
In 2014, Alabama Secretary of State Jim Bennett said any statewide election cost about $3 million. The costs have only increased over time. Outgoing Secretary of State John Merrill noted that the 2022 runoff is costing the state $5.5 million. Furthermore, a recent study concluded that the runoffs cost $7 per voter in Texas and doubled the costs in Louisiana, about $5 million each time. It is likely that these costs will only increase over time.
Since 2012, Alabama 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 demanded statewide runoffs in every major election cycle since 2012. The list goes on. Collectively, this equates to tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on a second round of elections that could be eliminated with an instant vote.
This cost of several millions of dollars is even more obvious if we consider the participation rates in the second round elections. Participation almost always decreases in runoffssometimes reaching less than 10 percent as voters grow weary and disengage from multiple ballots. But every statewide election costs the same whether the voter turnout is 10% or 90%. This makes these elections not only costly, but also a highly inefficient use of already limited resources.
It is important to note that implementing such a change does not increase the cost associated with each election. A study by FairVote showed that jurisdictions adopting preferential voting did not see their election administration costs increase thereafter. Savings from moving to instant ballots, eliminating an extra round of voting, could then be used to provide greater election security through upgrades to election technology, training of poll workers, the physical security of election officials or any other need that arises.
Creating economies at the state level is vital because private funding of elections creates opportunities for abuse and inequitable distribution, and many states have recently banned this. In addition, federal government funding is erratic and often comes with limits on how it can be spent. Using instant trickle down allows states to provide more much-needed funding for their own elections, which then allows them to spend the money in a way that meets their specific needs and doesn’t require increasing taxes or to reallocate funds from other areas.
Like other states, like Alaska and Maine, are experimenting with different reforms, others should consider implementing similar changes in their electoral procedures. Adopting this more streamlined method of the process already in place in a number of states would increase election funding and security without interference from private industry or the federal government. Then, election workers can better organize the free, fair, and secure elections that Americans deserve.
Ryan Williamson is a governance researcher at the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy think tank.