Low turnout, added costs and Jim Crow roots: why does NC still have runoff elections?

Kaitlin McKeown/kmckeown@newsobserver.com

North Carolina spent millions of dollars this month to organize and execute runoffs from the primary elections, a relic of the Jim Crow era that most states do not have.

Originally intended to decrease the likelihood of Black candidates winning elections, according to an expert on North Carolina politics, runoffs allow the top two vote-getters in a primary to essentially get a rematch if neither candidate reaches a certain threshold of votes.

When this happens in statewide races, as it did this year in Republican primaries for lieutenant governor and auditor, every county in the state must quickly organize another election to figure out which candidate will go to the general.

But turnout in these races is low, they’re not cheap to organize and most states don’t even bother doing them — so why do we?

Why does North Carolina have runoff elections?

North Carolina is one of only nine states that conduct runoffs in primary elections, most of which are in the South.

“It’s like RC Cola and boiled peanuts — you don’t find it north of the Mason-Dixon line,” Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, said.

Other states that have runoffs include Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota — one of the only non-Southern states to have them.

Cooper said that runoff elections in North Carolina emerged from the Jim Crow era of the American South, where the conservative Democratic Party dominated general elections — making primaries the most important competition.

In crowded Democratic primaries, the white vote could get split between several candidates, giving Black candidates a greater chance of winning. To avoid this, lawmakers implemented runoffs, Cooper said.

“They thought, ‘Hey, if we get another crack at this thing, we can basically coalesce our votes around the single White candidate,’” he said.

Since then, most states that adopted runoffs have kept them as part of their electoral system.

How do runoffs work?

In most states that have them, runoffs are triggered instantly if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. But North Carolina’s runoff requirements are entirely unique.

Here, a runoff can be called if no candidate wins more than 30% of the vote — but it doesn’t happen automatically. The second-place candidate has to request a runoff to set the wheels in motion.

“The decision to ask for that primary is an important one,” Cooper said. “... It’s an important one for your opponent, important one for the people you represent and an important one for the taxpayers in North Carolina.”

North Carolina’s runoff threshold was originally 50%, but it has been gradually lowered, with lawmakers reducing it to 30% in 2017.

As the threshold has been reduced, runoffs have become less common — and turnout has remained extremely low.

This month, less than 3% of eligible voters participated in the second primary.

Speaking to reporters earlier this month, House Speaker Tim Moore said he didn’t know of a good alternative to runoffs, but that turnout was “abysmal.”

“Certainly having a second primary where the turnout is anemic – it’s just not a good way to do it,” he said.

Sen. Paul Newton, chair of the Senate Elections Committee, told The News & Observer the committee hadn’t discussed reforming runoffs, but he was potentially open to the idea.

What are the consequences of runoff elections?

Runoff elections don’t necessarily have the same racial impact now that they did when first implemented, but they do often have notable consequences for elections.

In a study of North Carolina runoff elections from 2010-2022, Cooper and political scientist Michael Bitzer found that runoffs resulted in new winners 38% of the time.

Several notable figures in state politics owe their wins or losses to the fact that North Carolina has runoff elections.

The scandal-plagued former U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn would never have made it to Congress if the state had stopped after his first primary in 2020, in which he lost to Lynda Bennett by a few thousand votes.

And state Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr. would have been elected to Congress instead of the high court if not for the fact that he won only 34% of the vote when he placed first in a 2014 primary.

At that time, the threshold to win outright was 40%, so his opponent, Mark Walker, called for a runoff and won.

The legislature — which is led in the Senate by Berger Jr.’s father — lowered the threshold to 30% a few years later.

Runoffs also present an additional financial burden for the state.

The State Board of Elections doesn’t collect data on the amount spent by each county to conduct runoff elections, so there isn’t an estimate on how much was spent statewide to conduct runoffs this month.

However, the state’s largest county, Wake, allocated $1.3 million to the Board of Elections to conduct the second primary, according to the board’s communications officer, Marcus Thompson.

Alternatives to the runoff system

The most common alternative to a runoff is to accept whichever candidate wins a plurality of votes as the winner. With a plurality system, there is no vote threshold a candidate must reach to win — they only have to get more votes than every other candidate.

In crowded primaries, this could mean that a candidate who won only 10% of the vote could still win, so long as every other candidate got less than that.

Most states use a plurality system to determine the winners in primary elections.

Another alternative is ranked choice voting, also called an instant runoff.

In a ranked choice voting system, voters can rank all candidates in a race in order of their preference. If no candidate wins a majority of votes in the first round, then voters’ second- and third-choice votes can be counted without them having to return to the polls.

Moore told reporters he’s not a fan of ranked choice voting, saying it could lead to people winning elections without earning a substantial share of the vote.

Capitol Bureau Chief Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan contributed to this report.

NC Reality Check is an N&O series holding those in power accountable and shining a light on public issues that affect the Triangle or North Carolina. Have a suggestion for a future story? Email realitycheck@newsobserver.com