Primary Runoff Elections and Decline in Voter Turnout

Posted on December 23, 2020

In ten states, a primary runoff election may be held if no candidate wins a majority of the votes cast in their party’s primary. States currently using primary runoffs include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina (30% threshold), Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota (35% threshold), and Texas. FairVote studied voter turnout in all congressional primary runoffs held since 1994. Below are our key findings. 

Near-Universal Decline in Turnout. Turnout declined between the primary and the runoff in 240 of the 248 regularly scheduled primary runoffs in the U.S House and U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2020. In other words, in 97% of primary runoff elections fewer people voted in the second round than in the first. The average decline in turnout was 38% and the median decline was 37%. 

Primary-Runoff Timing a Key Factor. The longer the wait between the initial primary and the runoff, the higher the decrease in voter turnout between elections. Runoffs held between 31 and 40 days after the initial primary have a median turnout decline over three times higher than that of runoffs held between 11 and 20 days after the initial primary. 

Runoffs Nominate Winning Candidates for the General Election. Of the 248 runoffs in this time period, 79 (32%) resulted in a primary winner who trailed in the first round. Forty-one of these went on to win the general election. These congresspeople had the broadest support in their districts, but would not have been elected to Congress under plurality voting. Despite their faults regarding voter turnout decline, runoffs aim to achieve an important goal: avoiding unrepresentative winners who do not have majority support.

A spreadsheet with the raw data can be found here.

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Federal Primary Election Runoffs and Voter Turnout Decline

Posted on October 18, 2019

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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Fixing Top Two in California

Posted on June 18, 2013

In 2010, California voters approved a ballot measure establishing a Top Two primary system. Top Two replaced a system in which partisan primaries were followed by a general election among nominees of each party and independents. Under Top Two, all candidates compete against each other in the first preliminary election irrespective of party preferences. Voters have one vote, and the two candidates receiving the most votes advance to the general election, again irrespective of party preferences. 

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Top Two in Washington State

Posted on October 25, 2012

Update: This report has now been updated to include additional analysis from the results of the 2012 general election, more details on FairVote's proposed solution: Top Four with ranked choice voting, and analysis based on comparison to California's use of Top Two in 2012.The Top Two primary system has drawn increasing attention as a way to reform our elections. Rather than have parties nominate candidates who then face off in a general election, it establishes two rounds of voting: the first a "preliminary" to reduce the field to two candidates and the second a final runoff between the top two finishers. Candidates pick their own party label, and that label has no impact on which candidates advance.Louisiana for years was the only state using a form of the system for both state and federal elections. Washington State started using the system in 2008. California implemented it in 2012, and Arizona voters may adopt it in a November 2012 ballot measure. This report looks at the impact of the Top Two primary in Washington State in the two and a half election cycles in which it has been used. The report focuses on state legislative elections, but also summarizes results to date in congressional and statewide elections.   

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California's Proposition 14: Weaknesses and Remedies

Posted on August 05, 2010

On June 8, 2010, the voters of California approved Proposition 14, “The Top Two Primaries Act,” (“the Act”) with 53.7% of the vote. In its own words, the Act’s intention is “to protect and preserve the right of every Californian to vote for the candidate of his or her choice.”  All general elections will be won with a majority of the vote, and voters in the primary are generally free to vote for their true first choice with little fear that doing so will help elect their least favored candidate. Many of its backers argued that by giving independent voters more influence in determining which candidates advance to the general election, the Act would result in more moderate politicians and less gridlock in the legislature.

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Get 'Em (Ready to Vote) While They're Young

Posted on August 13, 2009

A movement is growing within the states to swing the doors of our democracy wide open, encouraging and facilitating the active participation of young people in the electoral process.

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Delegating Democracy

Posted on August 11, 2009

Our presidential nominating system is in need of a major overhaul. Incremental changes, like instituting instant runoff voting or expanding suffrage rights for young people would be a positive start, but more sweeping reform is required to transform the process into what we can truly call "democracy." The calendar needs a facelift, the superdelegates need some directions and the people need to have a greater voice in deciding their parties' nominee for President.

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