If not for North Carolina’s 97-year-old runoff law, Republican Robert Pittenger would be relaxing a bit after coming out on top of a bitter primary race for the 9th Congressional District – then he’d focus on the November election.
But because he didn’t get the law’s required 40 percent of votes, Pittenger’s still campaigning, still spending money and still trading barbs – with runner-up Republican Jim Pendergraph – while trying to nail down the nomination.
“It’s just more effort,” said Pittenger, a Charlotte real estate investor and a former state senator. “I’d rather be making it against a Democrat.”
Runoffs, or second primaries, are about as common to the Carolinas as grits and barbecue. But a growing number of people see them as expensive, low-interest relics of democracy.
The two Carolinas are among eight states that still partake in traditional runoffs to settle elections.
But unfold the numbers for North Carolina’s record 15 runoff elections on July 17 and it’s easy to understand why so many feel the tradition ought to be abandoned.
For starters, the runoffs will cost $7 million to $8 million and are likely to draw 8 percent to 10 percent of the state’s registered voters, state elections director Gary Bartlett predicts. That’s a drop from the 34 percent who voted in the May 8 primary.
Because there are statewide runoffs, each of the state’s nearly 3,000 precincts must be open and staffed with at least a chief judge and a Democrat and Republican judge.
And with runoff races for federal office on ballots, the second primary date had to be pushed back to mid-July, the latest they’ve ever been – when most people are thinking more about vacations than voting.
Runoffs used to take place four weeks after a primary. The move to seven weeks was made so North Carolina could comply with a federal law that allows uniformed and overseas voters enough time to receive and vote on ballots.
Yet a 2011 study of federal runoffs by the nonpartisan voting advocacy group FairVote shows that a 30-day gap between primary and runoff led to an average 45 percent turnout decline. A 20-day gap was 28 percent.
“These things don’t serve democracy well,” said Bob Hall, executive director of the nonpartisan Democracy North Carolina group. “They’re expensive, obscure elections and are often conducted when people are not paying attention.
“And yet every polling place has to be open. So it becomes an enormously expensive way to have a very low turnout and not really get an expression of the will of the people.”
The trouble with turnout
In Bartlett’s 20 years of guiding the state’s elections, the highest runoff turnout was about 8 percent in 1994. The lowest: 1.8 percent voted in 2008 for a Democratic runoff for state labor commissioner. Mecklenburg’s turnout was half of 1 percent – each vote costing $121.
Two years ago, even with a Democratic U.S. Senate runoff and three Republican congressional races, only 4.5 percent of voters posted ballots.
“Abolishing second primaries comes up nearly every legislative session, but it never gets far,” Bartlett said. “Most legislators don’t want a field of 10 (candidates) to have a 23-percent winner.”
Yet in many states, elections are decided by plurality: The top vote-getter wins, said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.
Because so many voters tune out after the primary, runoff candidates typically are forced to tap in again to contributors and re-energize their army of volunteers for a few more weeks.
Republican Jim Pendergraph, runner-up in the 10-man 9th Congressional District primary, said his staff quickly called supporters for more money and began looking through voting rosters for those who consistently vote in all elections.
Last week, Pendergraph also leased a 36-foot RV that’s taking him through neighborhoods in the 9th, where he’ll go door-to-door in his runoff against Pittenger. “You have to target voters you think will get to the polls more,” said Pendergraph, a Mecklenburg County commissioner and former sheriff. “There is a different strategy you have to use and you’ve only got a few weeks to make your case.”
For N.C. Democrats, the July 17 ballot will be minuscule: a statewide labor commissioner nominee and two legislative nominations still to decide.
Republicans have more to settle: statewide nominations for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state superintendent and insurance commissioner. Also to consider are runoffs in three congressional districts, including the 8th and 9th that include parts of Charlotte, and runoffs in three state Senate and two state House races.
“In those counties, where you have hot congressional races, or local races for state offices, you’ll have good participation – maybe even a 20 to 25 percent turnout,” Bartlett said. “In those counties that don’t, it’s going to be a lonely day.”
Are runoffs necessary?
Runoffs have been a part of the N.C. political landscape since 1915, after Democrats drove African-Americans and Republicans from power and worked to preserve a one-party state. Back then, the Democratic nomination was tantamount to winning the election.
N.C. political lore is littered with candidates from both parties who won primaries, but didn’t get the requisite 50 percent (lowered to 40 percent in 1989) to avoid a runoff and lost in the second primary.
In 1978, Charlotte banker Luther Hodges Jr. led the first primary in his attempt to unseat Sen. Jesse Helms, who was then facing his first re-election campaign. But Hodges lost a runoff to poorly financed Insurance Commissioner John Ingram, who lost to Helms in the fall.
Four years later, Democrat state Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham, who is black, received 45 percent of the vote in a primary for Congress. But he lost a runoff to Tim Valentine, a white Democrat, who served in the office until 1995.
Michaux returned to the N.C. House and helped lead the fight to lower the 50-percent threshold to 40.
Black candidates have argued that runoffs hurt minority candidates. But Bullock, the Georgia political scientist, said some black candidates needed runoffs to get elected.
Many want the state to adopt “instant runoff voting,” with voters marking their top three choices. If their first choice is eliminated, their other votes are automatically counted.
Bullock said dozens of cities across the country, including Hendersonville and Cary in North Carolina, successfully use instant runoffs.
It was tried statewide two years ago for a seat vacated on the N.C. appeals court. Thirteen candidates lined up, and voters were instructed to rank three choices.
Though it took a recount, Bullock and others say the instant runoff worked.
“They saved money for not having to have a separate election,” Bullock said. “You can also make the argument that a larger share of voters comes away from the election feeling like they won something.
“Their first choice didn’t win, but their second did.”
Pendergraph thinks runoffs are a fair way to decide primaries with multiple candidates.
“Without a runoff,” Pendergraph last week, “I wouldn’t be here.”