The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

There are many ways to skin a cat. Or run an election.

That’s never been quite so clear as now, during a year of special elections to fill vacated congressional seats. It makes sense we have so many now; a new president makes new appointments, and some of those appointees are drawn from Congress.

Each state sets its own rules on how to choose a winner from among sometimes fulsome pools of candidates in these low turnout events. Many times the goal is to make sure a candidate gets a majority of the votes instead of just a plurality. Just from this month’s news we have:

Georgia: The special election for the U.S. House seat vacated by now-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, was held last week. In this, you may remember, all comers ran on the same ticket, rather than on two separate party primary tickets. No candidate received 50 percent of the vote, so a runoff election is scheduled on June 20 to decide who takes this Atlanta-area seat. In effect, this was a “top two” primary, with all candidates running on the same ticket and the two top vote-getters advancing to the general election.

Alabama: A special election has been called to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Because Alabama is one of 11 states that uses primary runoffs, the Yellowhammer State will mount a primary (Aug. 15), potentially a primary runoff (Sept. 26), and then the election itself (Dec. 12). That’s three times the polls may open, with almost four months elapsing, and a $15 million estimated cost.

Utah: Utah doesn’t have a special election scheduled yet—and it doesn’t have rules in place on how to run one if needed. Since U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz has said he won’t seek another term and may, in fact, resign, how to run a special election is up for debate. Use the Georgia method where all candidates run together? Let parties choose their candidates for a general election? Run the usual party primary/general election two-step process? (If the seat does open up, NCSL’s past president, Senator Curt Bramble (R), has been mentioned as a possible replacement.) 

Some think there’s a better way to winnow down a field of candidates to a majority winner than running two or three elections.

One option is to use ranked choice voting (aka instant runoff voting), so voters can make their first, second (and so on) choices all on one ballot all at the same time—letting the election administrators do the math to see who would win if there is no majority winner and a runoff election is needed. This concept should save time and money, say proponents.

 In 2016, Maine voters elected to go this way starting in 2018, and over 20 bills proposing ranked choice voting or other alternative voting systems have been introduced in other states this year. 

If you’re wondering what the impact of using runoff elections is, or how ranked choice plays out in the real world, sign up for NCSL’s webinar, Primaries and Beyond: The Legislative Role on May 10.

Wendy Underhill directs NCSL’s Elections & Redistricting Program.

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Posted in: Elections
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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.