Since 2006, state law has allowed South Carolinians who live overseas or serve in the military to cast their runoff ballots at the same time they cast their primary votes, through a process called ranked-choice or instant-runoff voting.
It starts just like a regular election, but after voters select their first choice, they have the option of picking their second choice, third choice and so on. If one candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, then the election is over. But if no one surpasses 50%, we move to the instant runoff, which is a lot quicker and cheaper than those two-week slugfests we have in local, state and congressional primaries, where even fewer voters bother to participate than the tiny minority who participated in the primaries.
For round two, election officials remove the ballots for the candidate who finished last and count the second-choice votes on those ballots. The procedure repeats until someone crosses the 50% threshold.
Lawmakers approved the shortcut for overseas and military voters 16 years ago because our state’s shortest-in-the-nation runoff period doesn’t afford overseas voters enough time to receive and return their ballots.
As editorial writer Cindi Ross Scoppe reported a week ago in her column, the same problem surfaced in last month's runoffs, snagging a number of South Carolinians who weren’t physically able to leave home or were going to be out of town and so needed to vote absentee.
It’s always been a challenge for election officials to send out ballots in time for voters to mail them back, because the state doesn’t approve the runoff ballots until the Saturday after the primaries — at the earliest. The new Juneteenth holiday makes it even more difficult, because that shuts down the postal service for one of the eight days it used to be available for sending, receiving and returning ballots.
In addition, the new state law that eliminates in-person voting on the Monday before the runoff means voters who are in town and mobile have one less workaround if they don’t receive their absentee ballots on time.
It’s worth noting that state law also provides a couple of other shortcuts for military and overseas voters: They may request ballots and even vote via the internet. And if they mail in a paper ballot, they have an extra 24 hours to get it in. We’re not suggesting that the Legislature should allow others to cast ballots online, or that we should count ballots that arrive 24 hours after the polls close — those aren’t practices we think make sense, frankly, for anyone — but both options are a lot better than making it impossible for some people to vote.
A better idea would be to expand the runoff window from two weeks to three.
But the best idea would be to use the same instant-runoff voting method that's used by South Carolinians overseas and in the military — which has several advantages beyond ensuring that everyone who votes in the primaries has the option of voting in the runoffs.
Among the most obvious: It reduces the cost of elections to both the taxpayers and to candidates. It eliminates the annoyance of having to vote a second time in two weeks. And in the long run, it discourages extremism and divisiveness on both sides of the political aisle, because candidates who embrace either are less likely to attract those second-place votes.
Now that we know about the potentially unconstitutional barrier our runoff absentee law poses to some voters, the Legislature needs to make replacing that system a top priority in its next session.