Ken Hare In Depth: Few Alabamians vote in costly runoff elections
MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabama taxpayers will soon spend about $3 million to pay for a statewide primary runoff election in which almost no one will vote.
Alabama Secretary of State Jim Bennett predicts a turnout of about 5 percent for the primary runoff election on July 15 -- which means only one of every 20 registered voters is likely to cast a ballot. An even smaller percentage of the 3.7 million adults of voting age in Alabama will decide the results of these statewide primaries, since only about 2.9 million of them are registered.
If such a small number of voters decide the outcome of a primary runoff election, is it really worth the cost to taxpayers to hold one?
Most states have decided the answer to that question is no. Alabama is one of only 11 states that hold primary election runoffs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Most of the states that do hold runoff elections when no candidate captures a majority of the vote in the initial primary are in the Deep South. This is a holdover from the days of Democratic dominance in the state in the South when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to winning office.
But those days are gone now. (Although in Alabama, the rise of the Republican Party in the South has the GOP assuming a dominant role now in statewide elections.)
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the 11 states with provisions for primary runoff elections are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Vermont.
But that is misleading. Vermont holds runoffs only in the event of a tie -- an unlikely outcome -- while South Dakota only holds runoffs -- they call it a "secondary election" -- for the offices of U.S. senator, U.S. representative and governor.
According to the NCSL, in South Dakota if "in a primary race involving three or more candidates, no candidate receives 35 percent of the vote, the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes move to a 'secondary' election three weeks after the first primary election."
North Carolina has runoff elections, but only when the leading candidate does not get what is called a "substantial plurality," which North Carolina defines as 40 percent of the vote plus 1 vote in the original primary.
So in reality, Alabama is one of only eight states that require a runoff when no candidate in the primary gains a majority.
Attempts have been made over the years to eliminate the runoff requirement in Alabama, but none have been successful. There also have been attempts to pass legislation to impose a smaller hurdle than a majority for the top vote-getter, such as the 40 percent threshold in North Carolina and the 35 percent in South Dakota, but those attempts have failed as well.
Personally, I would like to see Alabama impose a lower threshold coupled with the requirement for a certain margin of victory. For instance, to avoid a runoff in a primary with three or more candidates, the top vote-getter would have to get 40 percent of the vote and have a 3 percent advantage in votes over the second-place candidate.
While a compromise of this nature would not eliminate runoffs, it would make them less common. That, in turn, could save the taxpayers a significant amount of money.
Low turnouts in primary runoffs can skew the results, making it more about which candidates can get their supporters to the polls than about who is the best choice. Also, when there are so few voters, it makes it easier for crossover voters from the other party to influence the outcome of a political party's election.
Clearly, if Bennett is right and only 5 percent of Alabama's registered voters decide the outcome of the primary runoff election, something needs to be done.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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