Runoff Elections in the United States

By Charles S. Bullock III; Loch K. Johnson | Go to book overview

7

An Appraisal of the Runoff

Runoffs were incorporated into the electoral landscape of the South at a time when two-party competition was rare. Many southern states adopted the majority-vote requirement during the first part of the century—after both Republicans and Populists had ceased to be a serious threat in statewide contests and were infrequently successful even in state legislative elections. States that made runoffs mandatory later, like Alabama and Arkansas, did so when Republican candidates were generally little more than a nuisance factor.

Given the historical intent of the runoff as a means to ensure majority support in the Democratic party and the fact that today's primaries are frequently multi factional, intraparty contests, some have suggested that the provision has outlived its usefulness. In other words, now that Republicans at least occasionally win statewide contests in every southern state, in addition to regularly winning the region's presidential votes, the runoff is unnecessary to ensure majority support for officeholders. William Keech and Carol Swain, for example, argue that "the runoff is now superfluous for its original purpose." 1

Some observers have gone further, warning that the runoff actually harms the Democratic party. By prolonging the nomination phase of an election, the majority-vote rule may allow the animosities of feuding factions within the party to grow for an extended period. 2 After the first primary eliminates all but the two strongest competitors, supporters of the remaining candidates may become increasingly hostile. Sometimes these rivalries are so bitter that the loser's troops refuse to rally behind the runoff winner. Traditionally, there was no need to reunite the party as the runoff determined who would hold office. Leaders of feuding factions would often keep their weapons ready for the next

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