The Mississippi Senate Primary and Why We Need Instant Runoffs

Until this past Tuesday’s Senate primary in Mississippi, the pundit class had spent much of this election season pushing the dubious (and possibly incoherent) narrative that the Republican “establishment” has finally tamed the insurgent “Tea Party” and set the GOP up for success in its bid to retake control of the Senate this November. From Sen. Mitch McConnell’s victory over Matt Bevin in Kentucky, to Thom Tillis’ trouncing of Greg Brannon in North Carolina, to the failure of Rep. Paul Broun to advance to a runoff in Georgia, evidence that Republican voters were finally getting tired of rolling the dice on unelectable political novices was said to be everywhere.

But even if there were not already serious reasons to doubt this theory, let alone reasons to question whether the “establishment vs. Tea Party” framing actually makes any sense, there certainly are now. The almost-victory of former talk-radio host Chris McDaniel over six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi is a glaring counterexample to the conventional wisdom.

Or maybe not. We’ll have to wait two more weeks to know for sure, since McDaniel’s 49.5% vote share fell just short of the 50-percent-plus-one needed for him to prevail outright and avert a June 24th runoff. The sprint to the finish line will be an expensive affair: Republican donors and PAC’s are estimated to have spent around $13.4 million on the race thus far, and while some prominent outside groups have announced that they plan on sitting out the final phase of the campaign, Politico has reported that “millions of dollars more” will likely be spent between now and the 24th.

McDaniel and Cochran finished within 1,400 votes of one another, and the former would almost certainly have triumphed were it not for the little-known Thomas Carey, who earned fewer than 5,000 votes out of over 300,000 cast, or about 1.5% of the total (holding the number of votes constant, Cochran would have had to win roughly two-thirds of the ballots that went to Carey in order to prevail). A National Journal profile of Carey, a former realtor who now works in prison ministry and who raised no money and ran no ads, referred to him as “the man who just cost Republican donors millions.”

In light of the fact that we can reasonably assume McDaniel would have won a two-man race against Cochran, and the fact that we can reasonably assume McDaniel will win a two-man race against Cochran, it’s frustrating to contemplate the amount of money that will be spent on this contest in the days ahead. To be sure, runoffs serve an important purpose; guaranteeing that a winning candidate has the support of a majority of voters is important, and one need only look as far as the governor’s office in Maine to see how first-past-the-post systems can allow candidates whose views are clearly at odds with those of the majority to slip into office.

But they’re also incredibly wasteful, especially when you consider the fact that we can accomplish everything runoffs are designed to accomplish in a single election by making use of instant runoff voting (IRV). Under IRV, voters are asked to rank some or all of the available candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate is able to command an outright majority when all of the first-choice votes are tallied up, the ballots going to the candidate who comes in last are reassigned to the second choices of those voters. Depending on the number of candidates and how evenly they split the vote, this process can be iterated as many times as necessary until someone emerges with a majority.

There are some potential pitfalls associated with IRV. IRV is often said to foster greater political competition, because it assures voters that they will not be “throwing away their vote” if they back a third party candidate; whether it actually does so is unclear. Critics also allege that IRV is confusing for voters, and that the rate of mismarked ballots tends to increase under such a system. But research suggests that such worries are misplaced, and the fact that IRV is used both internationally and in a few cities here at home should put to rest fears that it’s not ready for primetime.

Although there are good reasons to abandon runoffs entirely and fundamentally rethink the way that we elect politicians in the U.S., that probably won’t happen anytime soon. In the meanwhile, why not conduct runoffs as cheaply and efficiently as possible? And as for the charge that IRV is confusing, it seems to me that it’s actually less confusing and less of a hassle for voters than a traditional runoff. Not only does everyone only have to turn out on a single day to cast their ballots, but IRV allows runoffs to be conducted without voters having to understand all of the mechanics. Which of the following sounds like a more complicated message to communicate to the public?

  1. “Show up next Tuesday and vote for your favorite candidate. If nobody gets a majority, show up again a few Tuesdays from now and cast a vote for one of the top two finishers, which may or may not mean voting for the same person a second time.”
  2. “Show up next Tuesday and vote for your favorite candidate. Can you also tell us if you have a second choice? And maybe a third? Thanks.”

Educating voters about IRV would not be any more difficult – and might even be easier – than educating them about traditional runoffs. Political junkies have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which most Americans pay attention to politics and elections, but when it comes to IRV the pendulum swings in the other direction and voters are presumed to be too thick to learn a new way of doing things.

The amount of money that will be spent on the Mississippi Senate runoff is miniscule compared to what will be spent on some of the higher-profile races of 2014, but we should not pass up opportunities to reduce waste where we can. Instant runoffs would simplify the electoral process, and would help make sure that unknown real estate agents can’t drag out an expensive campaign for three extra weeks.

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