Thursday, March 28, 2024

You Mean We Have to Vote Again?!? Runoffs and second primaries in the 2024 North Carolina Election

by Christopher Cooper and Michael Bitzer

Like a dinner guest that just won't leave, we're not done with the 2024 primaries yet.[1] The Republican (statewide) primaries for North Carolina Auditor and Lt. Governor are headed to a second primary on May 14, 2024, as is the Republican side of the NC-13 congressional race, two (Republican) Gaston County Commission primaries, and the Orange County Schools Board of Education.

Now that the list of offices for the May 14, 2024 runoff is set, and ballots are being mailed out, we thought it would be a good time to address a few (five in this case) questions about second primaries and runoffs.

1. How Did We Get Here?

Party runoffs, like RC Cola & Moon Pies and preternatural obsession with college football, are mostly a southern phenomenon. In 40 states, the candidate who gets the most votes from each party's primary gets the nomination, no matter the winner's ultimate percentage of the vote (known as the 'first-past-the-post' electoral system). In 10 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas), the top vote-getter must the most votes *and* get pass a threshold percentage of the vote. In eight of those states, the "threshold percentage" is 50 percent. Get a majority and avoid a runoff; fail to obtain a majority and the top two vote getters duke it out in a runoff election. In South Dakota, the threshold percentage is 35 percent, but only applies to Governor, U.S. Senator or U.S. House of Representatives. 

Then there's North Carolina.

From 1915 to 1989, the threshold a candidate needed to receive to avoid a runoff in North Carolina stood at 50 percent, just like the rest of the South. Beginning in the 1970s and picking up steam in the late 1980s, however, there was a movement to eliminate the runoff altogether. The call for elimination came was frequently heard from African American legislators who argued that the runoff rule was rooted in racism and disadvantaged Black candidates. 

Not all who advocated for its elimination were African American legislators, however. Republican Senator Jim Johnson made a quintessentially North Carolina argument for eliminating the second primary. "North Carolina should be the number one state for doing away with second primaries because of its great philosophy with regard to basketball. We say, if you get one more point than the other guy, you've won."

In 1989, the NCGA opted not to eliminate the second primary, but rather to lower the threshold needed to avoid a second primary to 40 percent (see the AP article below). 

In 2017 the NCGA lowered the threshold again, this time to 30 percent, where it has stood ever since.

2. What's the Process for the May Runoffs?

The second primaries will be held on May 14. For the Republican primaries, Republicans who were registered to vote prior to the first primary and Unaffiliated voters registered prior to the first primary who did not vote in the Democratic or Libertarian primaries in March are eligible to cast ballots in the second primary. For the Orange County nonpartisan runoff, any voter who is 18 years old by May 14 can vote. 

According to the NC State Board of Elections:

 "In counties where second primaries are held, new registration of voters is not permitted between the first and second primaries. This means same-day registration is not available during early voting for the second primary. However, individuals who become eligible to vote between the primary and second primary and who are otherwise eligible to vote in the second primary may register and vote on the day of the second primary — May 14."

Counties can make their own decisions about how many polling sites to have for early voting. As of the time of this writing, there is only one site open for early voting in the vast of counties. In a few, there--there are multiple sites open across their counties for early voting. 

Most of those counties with multiple sites probably make sense. Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford are large, and Johnston, Granville, and Franklin are in NC-13 (the site of the only congressional primary in 2024), so it makes sense that they have multiple sites. But there are some outliers that are less obvious. For example, what gives with Hyde County? That one is more about geography than population, as this map of the early voting sites below indicates.

The bottom line is that voters should not simply assume that they can cast a vote in their usual in person early voting location. Instead, they should check information about hours and locations at the NC State Board of Elections site.

 3. How Does 2024 compare?

To learn a bit more about how this year compares to previous runoffs, we catalogued every runoff and second primary from 2010 to the present (a harder task than you might imagine). The figure below shows the number of runoffs per year; the purple vertical line indicates the year that the threshold was moved to 30 percent. 


As you can see, reducing the threshold from 40 percent to 30 percent had the desired effect--it cut the number of runoffs by more than two-thirds (a combined 61 runoffs in the 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 primaries, compared to 19 in the 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2024 elections). 
In terms of specific offices, North Carolina has not had a runoff for a council of state primary since 2012 (when there were 5!).[2]  The last congressional primary was in 2020 when second place finisher Madison Cawthorn bested Lynda Bennett in the second primary.

 4. What Turnout Might We Expect in May?

Not surprisingly, fewer people vote in runoffs and second primaries than vote in the initial election. 

From 2010 through 2022 (excluding the odd year elections), the average runoff or second primary garnered 42 percent of the voter turnout of the first primary, although there's a wide range of turnout rates, as you can see from the histogram below.

In the last congressional runoff, 51 percent of the people who turned out in the first primary turned out in the second. 2014 saw two congressional runoffs--one (NC-6, Republican) saw 72 percent of the original turnout in the second primary, while the other (NC-5, Democratic) saw just 17 percent of the original turnout in the second primary. 

In the 2012 council of state second primaries, the Republican runoffs averaged about 20 percent of the original runoff, while the Democratic runoff for Commissioner of labored garnered just 7 percent of the turnout of the original (the lowest turnout of the 74 runoffs we examined)!

On average, local elections have about 45 percent of the first primary turnout, although the spread here is massive--ranging from 8 percent to a whopping 99 percent of original turnout in the runoff for Bladen County Sheriff in 2010. 

5. How Often Do We Get Different Winners?

The runoff system is based on the idea that the voters might select a different candidate if the choices were more limited, but from 2010-2022, 62 percent of the first primary winners went on to win the second primary. 

Of course, that leaves over one-third of the contests with a different result in the second than the first primary. These include some consequential examples. In the 2020 Republican primary for the 11th Congressional District, Madison Cawthorn, placed second to Lynda Bennett in the first primary, but called for a second primary when Bennett failed to achieve the 30% threshold. Cawthorn subsequently went on to defeat Bennett in the second primary to become the Republican nominee and eventual (one-term) U.S. representative. 

In the 2014 Republican congressional district 6 primary, Phil Berger, Jr received more votes than Mark Walker, but did not break the 40% threshold. Walker won 60% to 40% in the second primary and went on to serve three terms in Congress. 

A decade earlier, both Virginia Foxx and Patrick McHenry lost their first primary before winning their second primary. McHenry's won by fewer than 100 votes!


Runoffs and second primaries don't get much attention and we think that's a mistake. Putting aside for a minute, whether this is the best system (we talk about alternate systems here), this is the system we've got and that system matters if you care about who represents you. 

After all, if North Carolina didn't have second primaries, neither Madison Cawthorn, Virginia Foxx, or Patrick McHenry would have won their election to Congress, and Phil Berger Jr would likely be in Washington and not on the NC Supreme Court. 

How's that for consequential?



[1] although runoffs describe non-partisan elections and second primaries describe partisan elections, we use the terms interchangeably throughout the piece.

[2] Terry Van Duyn could have called for a second primary for the Democratic Party Lt. Governor's race, but chose not to.


Dr. Christopher Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs and Director of the Haire Institute for Public Policy at Western Carolina University; he posts to social media at @chriscooperwcu

Dr. Michael Bitzer hold the Leonard Chair of Political Science and is a professor of politics and history at Catawba College; he post to social media at @BowTiePolitics