Debate on instant runoff voting continues in Charleston, experts weigh in

WCSC-TV (Charleston, SC)
December 26, 2023

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By Molly McBride

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) – After a push to allow instant runoff voting in South Carolina, one state representative from the Lowcountry is warning against the highly debated election method.

Instant runoff voting, or ranked-choice voting, is an election method that’s not currently allowed in South Carolina.

Here’s how it works:

  • Voters can rank as many candidates as they want on the ballot in order of preference. All first choices are tallied and if a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins, just like in any other election.
  • If there is no majority winner after counting the first choices, the race is decided by an “instant runoff.” The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as their top choice will have their next choice counted.

There are two bills in the state legislature regarding Instant Runoff Voting, one to allow the election method, and one to prohibit it.

Representative Matthew Leber of Charleston and Colleton Counties says he is against the idea of instant runoff voting in South Carolina, although he’s not directly involved with the bill to prohibit it.

He says the voting method goes against the American Tradition of one vote per person, and that he’s hesitant to change a system that has been working for centuries.

“There’s a scenario where a person loses their vote in total. If they pick fifth or fourth place candidates, then they could actually have their vote exhausted,” he says, “I just think that’s foreign to us to imagine that 10% of all the votes could be rejected or exhausted and wouldn’t count.”

Instant runoff voting advocate and President and CEO of the Small Business Chamber of Commerce, Frank Knapp, says traditional runoffs have a lower voter turnout anyway.

“We have up to 40% fewer voters for a runoff, and those fewer voters have no decision, no vote, on who the eventual winner is,” Knapp says.

The election method also could create a lot of confusion, and take voters more time at the polls, Leber says.

“We’re already struggling to get 50% of adults to show up to elections, so folks that get frustrated with the system, I fear would not come out,” Leber says.

Knapp says the system is easily learned.

“The complaint that instant runoff voting, that rank ordering the candidates on a ballot in order of your preference, is confusing and is an insult to South Carolina Voters of any age,” Knapp says.

The Small Business Chamber of Commerce and other organizations in support of Instant Runoff Voting say eliminating a runoff weeks later saves taxpayers money, estimating it would save the City of Charleston $105,000 alone.

However, Leber says he doesn’t think that’s a guarantee.

“That’s their biggest selling point, and I think that there are so many unintended, unforeseen consequences to it.”

Isaac Cramer, the Executive Director of the Charleston County Board of Elections, says the conversation surrounding Instant Runoff Voting is highlighting the need to eliminate runoffs in South Carolina.

Cramer says runoffs are a huge strain for election officials.

“You’re looking at two weeks where we have to prepare everything for a runoff,” he says, “So when we look at instant runoff voting or ranked-choice voting, it is a solution. The hardest part of it is implementation.”

South Carolinians have never voted this way before, and he says it would take a huge education campaign to educate both voters and poll workers.

He says his recommendation would be to pilot Instant Runoff Voting to see if it works for voters and election officials.

“To implement ranked-choice voting for the whole state with one sweep of the pen or one piece of Legislation, I would actually say ‘let’s put the brakes on that, let’s look at it, let’s test it out, let’s get feedback,’” he says. “We’re heading into a busy 2024, it’s not the time to make an election system change when we have a presidential election.”

Debate on instant runoff voting continues in Charleston, experts weigh in (

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