Outgoing South Carolina Mayor Urges Lawmakers to Adopt Ranked Voting

December 15, 2023 by Dan McCue
Outgoing South Carolina Mayor Urges Lawmakers to Adopt Ranked Voting
Outgoing Charleston, S.C., Mayor John Tecklenburg, who lost his bid for reelection in November, is calling on the state to allow ranked choice voting in local elections. (Photo via X)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The outgoing mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, would like to see the state change the way its voters choose their elected officials.

Mayor John Tecklenburg lost his bid for a third term in November, and his last city council meeting will be on Tuesday, Dec. 19.

At that meeting he plans to introduce a resolution calling on the South Carolina Legislature to add ranked choice voting — also called “instant runoff voting” — as an acceptable alternative to the state’s current election procedures.

The proposal would eliminate the need for separate runoff elections, saving local elections a considerable amount of money.

This year’s mayoral election in Charleston — originally a contest between six candidates — is estimated to have cost the city more than $200,000.

The runoff between Tecklenburg and former state Rep. William Cogswell, a Republican, held two weeks later, on Nov. 21, cost the city an additional $105,000, a county election official said.

Tecklenburg said he didn’t believe ranked choice voting would have changed the outcome of his reelection bid, but offered that it would certainly have been more convenient for voters and less of a burden on taxpayers.

In an email to The Well News, Isaac Cramer, executive director of the Charleston County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, said he appreciated Tecklenburg’s intent.

“Currently, South Carolina has one of the shortest turnaround times for runoffs in the country: only two weeks,” Cramer wrote. 

“This puts a great deal of pressure on both poll workers and voters, who have to prepare and participate in another election in a short span of time,” he continued, adding, “State lawmakers should explore solutions that can ease this burden on election officials and taxpayers alike.”

In fact there is a bipartisan bill, state House Bill 4022, working its way through the state Legislature that would allow municipalities to use instant runoff voting as one of four election methods available.

The bill is currently in the state House Judiciary Committee.

If it passes, it would allow voters to rank as many candidates as they want on the ballot in order of preference. 

All first choices would be tallied and if a candidate received more than half of the first choices, that candidate would be declared the winner, just like in any other election.

If there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race would then be decided by an “instant runoff.” 

Under that regime, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes would be eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as their top choice would have their next choice counted.

The process would continue until the number of candidates is winnowed down to a single winner.

Among those advocating for the opportunity to use ranked choice voting in the state is Melissa Couture, a member of the board of directors of Better Ballot South Carolina.

“We’re part of a national grassroots movement, advocating for what we think is a better way to do elections in our state and our country as a whole,” she explained.

Couture echoed what others have said about how ranked choice elections save municipalities and voters themselves time and money by eliminating runoff elections, but she also went a step further, saying she and her organization believe they would also be fairer and more reflective of the will of the people.

“The reality is, participation in a runoff election is a quarter of what we see in the general election,” she said. “So in the end, even if you win a runoff with 50% of the vote, you’re still only being elected by 10% of registered voters.

“I mean, my example is my husband. He doesn’t have another day to take off work to go and vote, and you lose people like him because of that,” Couture continued.

“With ranked choice, we already know how voters would vote if there had been a runoff because the voters have fully expressed their views on all the candidates in the race and ranked them,” she said. “So the broader electorate still has a say in the eventual outcome.”

Though Couture seemed confident South Carolina lawmakers will ultimately embrace the concept, she also admitted support for the bill is mixed.

“And I heard a Republican legislator just prefiled a bill that would ban ranked voting outright,” she said. “So there’s still a way to go.”

In addition to Better Ballot South Carolina, other groups supporting the adoption of ranked voting in the state law are the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, and Veterans for All Voters-South Carolina.

If South Carolina joins the 50 other cities and states that allow for ranked choice voting, the period of transition for the new system will be minimal.

Charleston County election officials say their current voting machines would need to be updated to accommodate ranked voting, but nothing else would be required.

“It’s basically a matter of installing software,” Couture said.

Aside from that, all country election officials would need to get moving on ranked choice voting is a nod from the Legislature.

“The Charleston County Board of Voter Registration and Elections follows state law in conducting all elections,” explained Cramer. “Therefore, changes to election processes would be implemented in Charleston County in accordance with the provisions outlined in any such legislation. However, with another very active election year drawing near, we do not anticipate any changes to the way South Carolinians vote in 2024.”

“Veterans for All Voters-South Carolina appreciates the courage demonstrated by Mayor Tecklenburg’s resolution on instant runoff voting and calls on the city council and the incoming mayor to continue Charleston’s march to a more inclusive 21st century voting system,” said Ret. U.S. Army Col. Chris Himsl, director of Veterans for All Voters-South Carolina. 

“Let’s move beyond picking the lesser of two evils and move toward picking for plans, policies and programs we want,” Himsl said.

Leslie Skardon, director of national issues for the South Carolina chapter of the League of Women Voters, said in a press release that her group also “wholeheartedly supports” Tecklenburg’s resolution.

“We’re urging the city council and the incoming mayor to move this forward in 2024,” she said.

So far Cogswell, the first Republican elected to represent the city of Charleston since 1877, has yet to say whether he supports ranked choice voting.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @DanMcCue

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