Posted by Emily Risch on October 18, 2019 at 1:55 PM

Primary runoff elections are held after an initial election when no candidate surpasses a predetermined vote threshold (typically 50%, although lower in some states). In a runoff, the top two vote recipients from the initial round compete, and the candidate who receives the most votes in the runoff becomes the party’s nominee.

Runoffs increase the likelihood that a party’s nominee is representative of the party’s primary voters. They also give voters in the first round an enhanced ability to express their preferences without “wasting” their votes on a candidate whom they prefer, but who has little chance of winning. In a runoff system, voters can vote for the candidate they most strongly support in the first election. If that candidate advances to the runoff, the voters can back them again. If that candidate does not advance to the runoff, voters can then express their preference for whichever of the top two candidates they prefer.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of runoff elections is the decrease in voter turnout for the runoff stage of the primary. Decreased turnout dilutes the main benefit of a runoff: improving representation by allowing voters in primaries to select a candidate with broad popular support. In the United States, primary runoff turnout rates often plunge so low that the democratic legitimacy of the elections is cast into doubt.

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