Charleston Post and Courier
December 14, 2023
At his final City Council meeting, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg plans to introduce a resolution supporting a change to the way South Carolina voters elect their local officials.
The resolution, which was released Dec. 14 ahead of the council’s Dec. 19 meeting, calls on the state’s Legislature to add instant runoff, or ranked-choice, voting as an alternative to current election methods. The proposed method eliminates the need for separate runoff elections by allowing voters to rank candidates, then eliminating the lowest vote-getter until one candidate has a majority of ballots cast.
Representatives from four statewide organizations held a press conference Dec. 14 behind City Hall applauding the resolution and saying instant runoff voting saves taxpayers time and money.
But detractors say the system is too complicated.
Last month, Tecklenburg lost his bid for a third term as mayor of the state’s largest city in a runoff against William Cogswell.
When asked, the outgoing mayor said in a statement that had ranked-choice voting been an option at the time, he didn’t believe it would have changed the outcome.
“No, I don’t believe it would have changed the outcome,” Tecklenburg said. “It would simply have made the election process more convenient for voters and less expensive for taxpayers.”
The runoff election in the Charleston mayor’s race was held Nov. 21, two days before Thanksgiving.
The runoff cost the city more than $105,000, according to Isaac Cramer, executive director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration. That’s on top of the more than $200,000 spent on the initial six-way race two weeks earlier.
Mayor-elect Cogswell’s campaign team declined to comment on where he stood on ranked-choice voting.
Cramer called South Carolina’s system for runoffs, which are held two weeks following the first vote, broken. He said the two-week turnaround is the shortest in the country, putting too much pressure on election officials and voters, who turn out in lower numbers for runoffs.
“That should be a reason for looking for a solution,” Cramer said.
He stopped short of supporting instant runoffs but said it would be a positive change, though it would require “a massive education campaign” for voters and poll workers.
Even if passed at the city council’s next meeting, the resolution would not change how the city votes. That would require a change in state law.
A bipartisan bill to do just that was introduced in the state’s House of Representatives in February. House Bill 4022, introduced by state Reps. Jermaine Johnson, D-Hopkins, and Neal Collins, R-Easley, was immediately referred to the Committee on Judiciary, where it continues to sit.
It would add instant runoff voting to the three existing methods of voting municipalities could use for local elections. The other three are:
- A plurality method, where the candidate with the most votes wins. This option is used in North Charleston.
- The election and runoff election method, which is currently used in Charleston.
- Primary election and general election method, most often used in partisan elections such as races for president or statewide seats.
If adopted, local governments would still have to opt into using ranked-choice voting.
But there is opposition to the proposed system. Last month, state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, filed a separate bill banning the use of ranked-choice or instant runoff ahead of the next legislative session, which starts in January. Bill 4591 joins the earlier proposed legislation in the House Judiciary committee.
“This past November was not the first runoff Charleston had, and it certainly won’t be the last,” said Susan McHugh, a board member of Better Ballot South Carolina, a voting rights organization pushing for instant runoff voting. “But there is a better way to do runoffs: instantly.”
She was joined by Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce; Leslie Skardon, representing the League of Woman Voters of South Carolina and Charleston; and Chris Himsl, director of the state’s chapter of Veterans for All Voters.
In addition to the effort and money saved, proponents said ranked choice voting encourages more civility and less negative campaigning since candidates won’t want to alienate voters who may put their opponent first but could rank them as the second choice.
South Carolina wouldn’t be the first to implement a new voting system. Knapp said ranked-choice voting is already used in elections in 50 counties, cities and states across the country.