Politics
12:00 am
Thu July 12, 2012

Runoff Elections A Snoozer For Most Of Us

For most North Carolinians, this time of the year is a time to focus on summer vacations, hitting the lake for some fishing, pool time, or just trying to stay cool. 

But for a few folks—and I mean a very few—their focus is on securing a spot on the November ballot in next week’s second primary election.

In the American electoral system, many elections are determined by the “first-past-the-post” system of winning. If the top-vote getter receives one more vote than the second-place candidate, the top vote-getter wins. 

So, in many states, a candidate who wins with a plurality (say, 35 percent of the vote) can secure their party’s nomination, even if a majority of votes are distributed among several other candidates.

In eight states, however, primary elections are subject to a runoff, with two other states (Kentucky and Vermont) providing for runoff elections for limited offices.

Unless a candidate receives a majority of the vote in a primary election in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, or Texas, then a run-off election is conducted between the top two candidates.

In Louisiana, with its completely open primary system, if no candidate gets a majority votes, then the top two candidates—regardless of party affiliation—go to a run-off. In Louisiana, that's the general election. If only one candidate meets the 50 percent threshold, the election is concluded. 

North Carolina is rather unique, though, in run-off elections (or what are termed second primaries).  Instead of a 50 percent pure majority requirement, the threshold for securing the nomination is a “substantial plurality,” equating to 40 percent of the vote plus one. 

In addition, a run-off is not automatically required unless the second highest vote getter calls for such an election. 

In some circles, it is believed that if the top-vote getter doesn’t secure the nomination in the first election, that candidate may be doomed in the second—especially if that candidate is the incumbent.

In research done on runoff elections, political scientists Charles Bullock and Loch Johnson of the University of Georgia found that to be a myth.

In North Carolina’s runoff system, the past few elections have partially confirmed some of Bullock and Johnson’s findings, but there are exceptions.

Going back to 2004’s primary season, three of the marque contests—two U.S. House districts and the Superintendent of Public Instruction—showed the second-place finisher in the first primary ended up winning the runoff.

In only one of the four state house and senate races did the second-place finisher in the first primary end up winning the run-off.

2004 Primaries with Runoffs

US House of Rep 5th District (Rep)

Foxx

Robinson

First Primary Results

22.9%

24.2%

Second Primary Results

54.6

45.4

 

 

 

US House of Rep 10th District (Rep)

McHenry

Huffman

First Primary Results

26.3

35.0

Second Primary Results

50.1

49.9

 

 

 

Superintendent of Public Instruction (Dem)

Atkinson

Stewart

First Primary Results

34.3

35.2

Second Primary Results

55.2

44.8

 

 

 

NC State Senate 3 (Dem)

Jenkins

Willingham

First Primary Results

33.1

32.8

Second Primary Results

54.5

45.5

 

 

 

NC State Senate 7 (Dem)

Berger

Moss

First Primary Results

36.7

19.7

Second Primary Results

51.2

48.8

 

 

 

NC State House 27 (Dem)

Wray

Henderson

First Primary Results

29.2

29.3

Second Primary Results

51.4

48.6

 

 

 

NC State House 67 (Rep)

Almond

Barbee

First Primary Results

39.8

37.9

Second Primary Results

65.0

35.0

North Carolina had three run-offs coming out of the 2008 first primary: Two Democratic races (commissioner of labor and state senate district 5) and one Republican race (state house district 67). 

In all three races, the top-vote getter in the first primary secured the nomination in the runoff.

2008 Primaries with Runoffs

Commissioner of Labor (Dem)

Donnan

Brooks

First Primary Results

27.5%

24.3%

Second Primary Results

67.9

32

 

 

 

NC State Senate 5 (Dem)

Davis

Taft

First Primary Results

35.8

24.1

Second Primary Results

62.7

37.2

 

 

 

NC State House 67 (Rep)

Burr

Furr

First Primary Results

37.4

32.8

Second Primary Results

58.3

41.6

In 2010, five state offices were contested in the second primary election. In three of these races, the top-vote recipient won the runoff (second primary) and the nomination, but in two races (both on the Republican side for the 8th and 12th congressional districts), the top-vote getter lost the runoff.

2010 Primaries with Runoffs

US Senate (Dem)

Marshall

Cunningham

First Primary Results

36.3%

27.2%

Second Primary Results

59.8

40

 

 

 

US House of Rep 8th District (Rep)

Johnson

D'Annunzio

First Primary Results

33

36.8

Second Primary Results

60.9

39

 

 

 

US House of Rep 12th District (Rep)

Dority

Cumbie

First Primary Results

34.3

39.4

Second Primary Results

51.7

48.2

 

 

 

US House of Rep 13th District (Rep)

Randall

Reeves

First Primary Results

32.5

31.8

Second Primary Results

58.9

41

 

 

 

NC State Senate 21 (Dem)

Mansfield

Crenshaw

First Primary Results

34.7

28.6

Second Primary Results

61.8

38.1

One other important point to make about runoff elections: with the first primary elections, we can see state-wide voter turnout anywhere from the mid-teens in 2010 to the mid-thirties in 2008 and 2012. 

With runoffs, voter turnout plummets: in 2008’s second primary elections, state-wide was 1.83 percent, while 2010’s second primary’s turnout was 4.5 percent, state-wide.

Granted, in local areas where the contests are most intense—like in the 8th and 9th Congressional districts surrounding Charlotte—we will most likely see a slightly higher turnout. But don’t bet on anything significant.

But most folks are more interested in going to the pool or casting a fishing road than casting ballots.

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