Leslie Rutledge and David Sterling, the state’s two remaining Republican candidates for attorney general, spent the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s runoff election scouring the state looking for votes. The question is, should they have had to?
They were “scouring” rather than “campaigning” because turnout was expected to be less than 5 percent, and so the winner wasn’t the one who best presented their candidacy to Arkansans – it was the one who found those needle-in-a-haystack voters.
All the other statewide races had already been decided in the party primaries, which themselves drew turnout of only 21.32 percent. A few local races – sheriff in Saline County, state Senate in the Harrison area – drew some attention and likely had decent turnout.
That means those areas had an outsized influence in determining the Republican candidate for attorney general, along with three other groups: Republican diehards, people who believe it is their duty to vote in every election, and maybe a few Democrats who thought they might could manipulate the system by trying to vote for the worse candidate.
“The people” did not vote in this runoff. Only a few of the people did. And that’s a problem. Runoffs are supposed to select a nominee who has the broadest support, once the candidates who finished third or worse are eliminated. Instead, because of low turnout, the opposite is often the case. The candidate who can appeal to a motivated minority often wins. The more conservative candidate in the Republican Party and the more liberal candidate in the Democratic Party usually has the advantage even if they aren’t the best candidate. It also gives extra influence to outside groups like the one promoting Sterling for his support of a “stand your ground” law.
The practical reason for runoffs is to prevent an unacceptable candidate from sneaking into office because he or she manages a fluke win in a crowded field. In a multi-candidate race, it’s possible for a candidate to finish first thanks to the votes of a minority of voters but still be unacceptable to the majority. Arkansas, in fact, implemented runoffs in the 1930s to keep Ku Klux Klan members from getting elected that way.
Solutions? One is to have no runoffs at all. Only six other states require them when no candidate wins a majority – Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia and South Carolina. In 43 states, Rutledge would have been the nominee because she won 47.21 percent of the vote in the primary May 20. Sterling won 39.11 percent.
Another solution is to lower the bar. Instead of requiring candidates to win 50 percent of the vote, make it 40 percent, as is the case in North Carolina. That would require a candidate to demonstrate broad support. In that case, Rutledge still would have been the nominee.
A third solution is instant runoff voting, where voters rank candidates in order of preference instead of just voting for one. A process of mathematical elimination chooses a winner who finished the highest on the most ballots.
There is one other solution. Primary voters could again make the trek to the polls in the runoff – even if it is for a position like attorney general that, though important, doesn’t excite much interest.
Elections should be democratic, fair and practical. Without a runoff, the primary, where a large number of people voted, would have selected an acceptable candidate in Rutledge. Sterling is also acceptable, but if he won on Tuesday, then the candidate who won 39 percent of the vote in the primary will have beaten the candidate who won 47 percent.
Because of the runoff, the candidates had to raise money and find voters, taxpayers had to pay for a statewide election, volunteers had to man voting booths for a week – all to select a nominee based on 5 percent of the vote. This can’t be the best way.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His e-mail address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.