In 2017, Idaho Falls had the highest spending race for mayor in the entire state of Idaho with more than a quarter-million dollars spent. One factor was that Idaho Falls has a runoff election system as do seven other Idaho cities.
In the 2017 November election, incumbent Rebecca Casper took 47 percent of the vote, just shy of a majority. The second place candidate was City Councilwoman Barbara Ehardt, who garnered 27 percent. Other candidates took the remainder. Because neither candidate had a majority in the general election, the top two candidates went head to head again in early December in a runoff election where Casper took the win 61 percent to 39 percent. In the deciding runoff election, turnout was nearly one-quarter less than in the November election.
Idaho Falls has now had several runoffs, right after the Thanksgiving holiday. All have had substantially lower turnout than the general election.
The Idaho Legislature authorized Idaho cities to adopt runoffs in 1984. They are not allowed for non-municipal elections.
Idaho Falls is the only Idaho community that requires runoffs for both mayor and city council. Idaho Falls voters adopted the system in a public vote in 2005.
The Idaho Falls City Council is considering rescinding runoffs because of three primary reasons: 1) No runoff has ever reversed the results of the general election, 2) Turnout has been much less in the December runoff compared to the general election and 3) The December runoff in 2017 cost Idaho Falls taxpayers $43,000.
Since runoffs have been in place only one race in Idaho has ever changed who was ahead in the general election. That was in the 2007 Eagle race for mayor.
The Legislature should revisit runoffs and roll out a superior alternative — “instant runoff voting.” It is a system already used in Australia, Maine and numerous U.S. cities.
Here is how it works. In the general election, voters rank their candidate choices for all the candidates, ie., selecting their first, second and third choice, etc. If no candidate wins a majority outright, then candidates who were not in the top two have their voters re-allocated based on their preferences. The winner is the candidate who ends up the majority choice. It is a runoff system that provides majority support for the winner but avoids the cost, delay or low turnout of conducting a December runoff.
One recognized advantage of such a system is that a candidate generally cannot win by appealing to only a narrow segment of the electorate. That tends to minimize negative campaigning. To win in an instant runoff system a candidate — who doesn’t have enough supporters to win outright — must win over those who back some of the other candidates.
The Legislature could take a more radical approach and apply instant runoff voting to all Idaho races. The biggest benefit would be application of this system during party primaries. Imagine if an Idaho party candidate for the Legislature could not win his or her party’s nomination with the support of a majority of their primary voters? Such a system would minimize niche candidates and nominate those who more closely reflect their particular party.
This method could also apply to general elections, ensuring that winners reflect the majority.
There is another advantage of this system. Every voter has a higher probability of impacting the eventual outcome. If their preferred candidate does not win, their second or third choice might. That could encourage more voter turnout and voters would be more likely to pay attention to all of the candidates.
Steve Taggart is an Idaho Falls attorney specializing in bankruptcy with considerable real estate experience. He was previously a political consultant and ran a congressional office in Washington, D.C.