Civics Notes Throwback: Runoff Elections

"Civic Notes Throwback" is a series where we highlight civic articles from past newsletters (published in Fall 2020). This article was originally published on November 17, 2020.

By Nathan Han

With two Senate seats from Georgia headed to a runoff election, here’s everything you need to know about runoffs! 

Runoff elections are essentially second elections that occur after the first election if none of the candidates in the first election met a required threshold for victory (for the majority of runoffs in the US, that threshold is a simple majority, 50% of the vote). These runoffs typically occur two or three months after the election, but it’s important to understand that some states will hold runoff elections and some won’t — it’s all up to each state and its laws.

Only two states hold runoff elections for general elections: Georgia and Louisiana. For primaries however, ten states (listed here), which include Texas and several other Southern states, hold primary runoff elections. 

The most prominent recent example of a runoff election in Texas was the U.S. Senate Democratic primary between M.J. Hegar and Royce West. In the first election, Hegar had the most votes out of all 12 candidates (Hegar - 22.3%, West - 14.5%, ...) but Hegar didn’t have the majority of votes, which triggered a runoff. The former Air Force veteran, who would go on to win the runoff by a 52%-48% margin, wasn’t even halfway to 50 percent in the first election, making this race a good example to explain why Texas and certain states hold runoffs, especially in primary elections. Voters can become better informed about the candidates in a runoff election because there are only two of them, unlike the original field which would have more unknown candidates in terms of name recognition. Furthermore, while Hegar may have won a majority of votes in the first primary election, there may have been voters who voted for another candidate on the ballot who would rather vote for West than Hegar. 

There are downsides to a runoff election system though. A main issue is reduced voter turnout. The first round of elections will have multiple elections on the same ballot and therefore more interest — people who were particularly invested in the primary nomination for president and made an effort to vote in the first round may not come out to a runoff election where the only item on the ballot is the Senate nomination. In addition, the longer the runoff is from the first round of elections, the less likely people are to vote in the runoff. This is a common issue in Texas: The first primary election in our example above was held on March 14, 2020, while the runoff for the nomination was held on July 14, 2020. A study by FairVote found that the average reduction in turnout between the first round of elections and the runoff elections in primaries was 35.3%. 

Your vote matters in every election, but in runoff elections, your vote can make an even greater impact in the result because of the typically low voter turnout. As you hear more about the Georgia Senate runoffs in the news, we hope this helped you learn more about runoff elections!

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