The North Carolina "Threshold" Experiment
In 1989 North Carolina became the first state since Louisiana to modify its runoff provision. Whereas the changes taken by Louisiana in 1975 created a nonpartisan initial primary for all comers (with a second election required if no one received a majority), the North Carolina changes established a threshold for nomination but at a level below 50 percent of the vote.
The North Carolina law was somewhat different from that of other states in that it provided for the right to demand a second primary when no candidate received a majority. The legislation replaced the majority requirement with a stipulation that the primary leader had to garner a "substantial plurality" in order to avoid the possibility of a second primary. The legislation defined substantial plurality as 40 percent of the vote cast for an office. The 40 percent cutoff was already in place in New York City and had been suggested (though not yet adopted) for South Carolina as well.
Black legislators in North Carolina had sponsored proposals to eliminate the runoff as early as 1973. Prior to 1989, none of these proposals had even made it to the floor for a vote. Instrumental in the positive response accorded the 1989 proposal were several fresh developments. First, the 1988 state Democratic party convention endorsed a proposal to eliminate the runoff procedure. Second, the state board of elections concluded (in September 1988) that the runoff discriminated against blacks. The board lacked authority to eliminate the requirement, however, because runoffs were mandated under state law.
A third factor, and perhaps the most important, was the willingness of the bill's sponsor, Senator Ralph Hunt (a black), to settle for half a loaf in 1989.