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Many national observers followed this race as a test of Donald Trump‘s sway among GOP voters. Trump and the conservative Club For Growth endorsed Wright, while former Texas governor—and Trump energy secretary—Rick Perry backed Ellzey.
Yet while intra-party intrigue always makes for irresistible headlines, what this contest really illustrates is how unrepresentative runoffs can be—and how we need a voter-friendly solution that creates better elections.
”And as we see in Texas, the problem is not exhausted ballots but exhausted voters. Over half of those who took part in the first round didn't bother coming back for the second.
The best answer would be ranked choice voting (RCV). It provides a much more accurate and representative outcome than an expensive, low-turnout runoff.
Just look at what happened in Texas over a two-round runoff—and how many problems ranked choice voting would have helped solve. Instead of calling voters back to the polls a second time, everyone could have cast their ballot at once, with RCV working as an “instant runoff.” Voter turnout in the decisive vote would have increased, strategic voting declined and the 6th congressional district would have had a representative far faster.
Wright and Ellzey led after May’s first round in TX-06 and advanced to the runoff as the top-two finishers from a wild 23-candidate jungle primary featuring both Democrats and Republicans. Open seats naturally attract a lot of candidates. Voters should have lots of choices. But when voters have to negotiate a field that massive, a single choice isn’t enough to capture the complexity of the situation. Indeed, that choice gets weaponized against them.
All of those voters faced a difficult challenge. In a district that Trump only carried by 3 percentage points in 2020, Democrats hoped to push one candidate into the runoff, but with multiple candidates in the field, having additional choices meant dividing their votes among four of the top eight finishers—and ultimately being shut out of the final round. Republicans, with more candidates, had even more fear of casting a “spoiler” ballot.
Ranked choice voting would have put an end to those fears and allowed everyone to cast a ballot that truly represented the richness of their perspectives. But it also would have allowed far more voters to have a say in the outcome.
As it was, barely less than a third of voters decided who advanced to the runoff. Wright led that first primary on May 1 with 15,052 votes, or 19.2 percent, while Ellzey finished second with 10,851 votes, or 13.8 percent. A total of 78,374 voters cast ballots in the first round.
Nearly three months later, Ellzey turned that around in the runoff, earning just over 53 percent of the vote to edge Wright. But here’s the shocking statistic: Fewer than 39,000 voters took part in the runoff, a decline of more than 50 percent. That means an even tinier and less representative pool of voters made the final decision.
That’s a precipitous plummet, but one that’s entirely predictable. Runoff elections are almost always low-turnout races, even though taxpayers spend tens of millions to administer them.
The political science on this is clear. FairVote studied every primary runoff for Congress between 1994 and 2020, and found that turnout fell in 97 percent of them. That’s right. In 240 of 248 elections over 26 years, fewer voters cast ballots in the decisive runoff. The average decline was some 38 percent. In Texas’ 99 congressional runoffs in this period, the average decline was even higher at 46 percent. The drop off is steepest in communities of color.
States and localities nationwide have adopted ranked choice voting because it’s such a useful tool in getting more voters to participate and to determine the winner who best combines wide and deep support. Democrats in New York City just used it to select the party’s nominee for mayor. Republicans in Virginia used it this spring to select their nominee for governor and other statewide offices. In Utah, 23 cities chose to use RCV this November for their elections. Citizens in Maine and Alaska brought RCV to statewide races via the ballot initiative, with the Maine legislature adding presidential elections.
It’s not because it makes elections perfect. It simply makes them better. In New York’s mayoral race, RCV came in for criticism because some 15 percent of voters did not back either of the final two choices among their top five rankings. Nitpickers called that an “exhausted ballot.” But what’s better, having five choices or merely one? Under the old system, any ballot not cast for the winner would have been “exhausted” right away.
And as we see in Texas, the problem is not exhausted ballots but exhausted voters. Over half of those who took part in the first round didn’t bother coming back for the second. Why not make it easier and conduct both rounds at once? We don’t know how many voters in TX-06 would have ranked the final two candidates. But everyone who came out to vote the first time would have had the same opportunity to vote in the runoff. That’s a better and more efficient election—and exactly the kind of nonpartisan election reform all voters, and all legislators, ought to get behind.
Rob Richie is CEO of FairVote.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.