Lincoln Chafee, a former United States Senator, emerged as the winner of this year’s Rhode Island gubernatorial race. Chafee received only 36% of the vote in a close election that featured three viable candidates. Additionally, a fourth candidate finished with 6.5% of the vote, which represents about twice the amount of Chafee’s margin of victory. Few can argue that Governor-elect Chaffee lacks the experience necessary to govern, but the real question in Rhode Island is whether a candidate who receives less than 40% of the vote should be deemed the winner of a statewide election. Some states’ laws require an additional runoff election that whittles down the number of candidates when no one candidate receives a majority. Many Rhode Islanders, including term-limited outgoing Governor Donald Carcieri, called for the institution of a runoff election following this year’s race.
Assuming the Rhode Island General Assembly wishes to enact legislation changing the statewide election procedure to provide for runoff elections, several options still remain. The first issue is determining the percentage vote level one candidate must receive in order to win the election outright without additional elections. Many states that use runoff elections require a majority of 51% to avoid a second round. Other states require at least 40% with a certain percentage of victory. When determining which level to set, states must weigh the value of a candidate receiving a traditional majority of 51% against the extra costs associated with administering the additional elections. As some citizens in Rhode Island are arguing for runoff elections, many in North Carolina are frustrated at the cost and low voter turnout in the subsequent runoff elections. In states that use runoff elections, most of them occur in the primary stage because the general elections typically are not close enough among three candidates to warrant a second round.
The next issue after setting a bar for the percentage is determining which type of runoff election to apply. Most systems take the top two candidates in terms of percentage and then hold one additional election to achieve a majority. There is, however, a movement to institute instant runoff voting. Supporters of instant runoff voting include President Barack Obama, Senator John McCain, and Howard Dean. In an instant runoff voting system, the winner is elected by voters ranking candidates in their preferred order. In the first round, only the first preferences are recorded and if no one candidate receives a majority, then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and that candidates votes are redistributed to the candidates at full value according to the second ranked preference on the ballot. This process repeats until one candidate has a majority of the votes and is determined the winner and eliminates the problem of low voter turnout at subsequent elections. This system is used widely throughout the world in places such as the United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Ireland. Instant runoff voting is not as popular in the United States and has mostly been instituted in city-wide elections. Also, some cities in the United States have repealed instant runoff voting, citing voter confusion among other problems.
What fix is best for Rhode Island? Instant runoff voting seems to present the most efficient and accurate alternative. It has not, however, been used in a statewide election before in the United States. It would probably be difficult to get support to go from a first-past-the-post system to instant runoff voting. A more practical solution would be to implement a runoff election only when no single candidate in the gubernatorial race receives at least 40% of the vote. Under this system, the problem of costly second round elections is ameliorated by setting the bar at 40% and only applying it to gubernatorial elections. Because it is so infrequent that any one candidate fails to get 40%, this solution would address the very narrow problem that Rhode Island faces. The problem of costly second round elections occurs when runoff voting is applied to a wide number of elections. The governor in many ways is the face of the state, and there is value in having at least 40% of the voting population support the election of a particular candidate. Unless addressed soon, this problem—like so many others in election law—may be forgotten in the months following the election, only to rear its head several years down the road when a similar situation occurs.
Mark Connolly is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.