Under the Dome

Rob: Primary runoffs are misunderstood

Primary runoff elections are a Southern institution.

In a 1997 column, veteran N&O political observer Rob Christensen wrote that primary runoffs have been a "political fact of life" in North Carolina since 1915, leading to defeats for Luther Hodges Jr., Frank Porter Graham and Jim Gardner, among others.

At the time, the legislature was considering abolishing them.

Christensen interviewed Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia professor who studied 1,222 primary runoffs between 1970 and 1986. Bullock, the nation's leading expert on primary runoffs, argued they are the least-understood aspect of American elections.

Bullock argued that primary runoffs: 1) Were not created to disenfranchise black voters. 2) Do not necessarily hurt black candidates. 3) Keep Democratic- and Republican-controlled districts competitive. 4) Do not necessarily hurt the eventual nominee. 5) Do not always go to the underdog. 6) Are not chosen by a handful of voters.

After the jump, the full text of the column.


Myths surround South's preference for primary runoffs
by Rob Christensen, March 31, 1997

Primary runoff elections are as Southern as grits, corn bread and the playing of "Dixie."

Since 1915, primary runoffs have been a political fact of life in North Carolina. The political graveyard is filled with the bones of Tar Heel candidates who, having failed to win a majority in the primary, lost in a runoff.

Rest in peace Luther Hodges Jr., Frank Porter Graham, Jim Gardner and dozens of other candidates who saw their dreams go poof in a primary runoff.

The General Assembly is considering dumping an 82-year-old institution into the ashcan of history. It's an anachronism, the critics say. Discriminates against blacks, others say. Hurts Democrats, declare some.

B-A-L-O-N-E-Y, says Charles Bullock, the Richard B. Russell professor of political science at the University of Georgia, and perhaps the nation's leading expert on primary runoffs.

Bullock thinks people base their opinions on myths, rather than facts.

If North Carolina abolishes the primary runoff, Bullock says, the Republican Party could be opening the door to control by groups such as the Christian Coalition, and Democrats would be risking nominating more left-wing candidates.

"You could have two extremes nominated in a primary - the middle-of-the-road voter may not have a choice," says Bullock, who is co-author of the 1994 book "Runoff Elections in the United States."

North Carolina is one of 12 states, all but two in the South, that have primary runoffs. From 1915 until 1989, a candidate had to win 50 percent of the votes plus one to win a primary in North Carolina. If no candidate gained a majority, the second-place finisher could call for a runoff. In 1989, the barrier was lowered so that a first-place finisher could win a primary outright if his share of the vote was 40 percent or more.

The Senate voted this month to abolish the primary runoff as part of a bill moving the primary from May to September. The House has yet to consider the issue.

In his book, Bullock studied 1,222 primary runoffs held between 1970 to 1986, and he punctured some myths.

Myth One: The primary runoffs, a holdover from the days of racial segregation, were designed to keep blacks from holding public office. In fact, the runoff was created in 1915, years after the Jim Crow laws had disenfranchised black voters. The primary runoff was adopted by most Southern states during a time when the South was solidly Democratic and the Democratic nomination was tantamount to victory. Southern leaders wanted to make sure a fringe candidate was not elected.

Myth Two: Primary runoffs hurt black candidates the most because white voters will rally behind a white candidate in a runoff. To bolster this argument, critics point to the runoff losses of two black candidates who led the first primary - Mickey Michaux's 2nd District congressional race in 1982 and Howard Lee's 1976 race for lieutenant governor. But there are plenty of examples of blacks winning runoffs, says Bullock, such as Harvey Gantt's 1990 runoff victory in the Democratic U.S. Senate race.

Runoffs do not hurt black candidates in city or county elections, Bullock said. But African-American candidates do have a small disadvantage in state and federal elections. But Bullock says that could change soon.

The creation of black-majority districts is likely to attract multiple black candidates, making it possible for a single white candidate to capture a plurality if the runoff is abolished. Walter Jones, who is white, would have been elected 1st District congressman in 1992 with 38 percent of the vote if there had been no runoff. Eva Clayton, who is black, beat Jones in the runoff.

Myth Three: Now that North Carolina, like most of the rest of the South, is a two-party state, there is no need to have a primary runoff. In fact, many congressional, legislative and other districts are dominated by Democrats (black-majority districts, for example) or by Republicans (such as many suburbs).

Myth Four: Rough-and-tumble Democratic primaries leave the nominee so battered that he has a difficult time beating a Republican. Democrats point to the raucous 1984 Democratic primary for governor. After winning the Democratic primary for governor, Rufus Edmisten was so beat up that he lost to Republican Jim Martin. In fact, Democratic runoffs do not promote Republican victories. Three-fourths of the Democratic nominees who were in runoffs beat their Republican foes in the fall.

Myth Five: The leading vote-getter in the first primary is doomed, because voters will rally to the underdog in the runoff. People point to the 1978 Senate race, in which first-primary leader Luther Hodges Jr. lost to underdog John Ingram in the runoff. In fact, studies show that the primary leader wins the runoff 70 percent of the time. But that is less true in North Carolina, where 50 percent of the first-primary winners lost in the runoffs.

Myth Six: Runoffs have such poor turnouts that only a small number of voters pick the nominee. Reality: Although runoffs usually have a smaller turnout, the nominee almost always gets more votes in the runoff than the plurality winner received in the first primary.

Because of these and other myths, Bullock says primary runoffs "may well be America's least-understood electoral procedure."


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Re: Rob: Primary runoffs are misunderstood

Runoff elections are important when there is a split in the party. Often that split may be between conservatives vs. liberals, or moderates vs. extreme conservatives or liberals. Or it could simply be east side vs. west side or north side vs. south side of a district (or city or state).

What if most of the voters preferred to elect someone from the east side of a district, and geography was the only important issue? If two east side and one west candidates ran, the east side candidates could split the vote, giving the west sider the plurality. Without a runoff, the west side candidate would take office. With the runoff, the favorite of the east side candidates would face the west side candidate. If the majority preferred the east side, their candidate would win.

For similar reasons, both major political parties require that, in the nominating convention, one person must receive a majority of the votes. Multiple ballots are used until one receives a majority (although this hasn’t been necessary for the last half century). Many other organizations require a majority vote for election of officers.

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