Runoff elections allow small minority of voters to give nominees a majority of votes

Oklahoma one of few states that rely on the system to select political party candidates
BY CHRIS CASTEEL Modified: August 23, 2010 at 4:30 am •  Published: August 23, 2010

On Tuesday, a small percentage of Oklahomans will engage in a ritual that would be considered foreign in most states: Voting in runoff primaries.

The state will spend $850,000 to $900,000 to conduct the elections, and low turnout is expected in most. Because there is a runoff to decide the Republican nominee for state insurance commissioner, all polling places statewide must be open.

Oklahoma is one of 10 states with provisions for runoff elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only seven, including Oklahoma, require the nominee to get a majority of the vote.

In Kansas earlier this month, a Democrat won her party's nomination for the U.S. Senate seat with just 31 percent of the vote.

That couldn't happen in Oklahoma, or in the other handful of runoff states that have thresholds candidates must meet to win primaries.

Besides Vermont, which only holds runoffs in the event that two candidates tie, all of the runoff states are southern ones that used to be so dominated by the Democratic party that most races were decided in the primaries; that is, whoever won the Democratic primary typically won the general election.

University of Georgia political science professor Charles S. Bullock III said runoffs were designed to prevent nominees from being selected by a relatively small percentage of the electorate.

"I think there's something to be said for majority support," he said.

But, at least in Oklahoma, the winner of a runoff often gets a majority from a small minority.

Minority 'rules'

Eight years ago, less than 12 percent of registered Republican voters turned out to vote in the runoff for their nominee for corporation commissioner. In 2006, about 17 percent of Republican voters chose the nominee for lieutenant governor.

So it was a huge turnout in 2002 when 24 percent of registered Democrats voted in the runoff that gave Brad Henry the gubernatorial nomination over Vince Orza.

Keith Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political science professor who has done extensive research on runoffs, said Henry's comeback — he had finished well behind Orza in the first round — was the biggest in a gubernatorial runoff ever, in any state.

Henry said last week, "Obviously, I was able to capitalize in a runoff election during my first gubernatorial campaign; but all personal experiences aside, I do think it makes sense to retain the runoff in Oklahoma.

"Without it, you could have candidates being elected to high office after winning as little as 25 or 30 percent of the vote.

Runoff Elections are Limited
Runoff elections in Oklahoma on Tuesday will feature one race for statewide office — insurance commissioner — two congressional district races and eight races for state legislative seats. In some counties, runoffs for county offices also will be on the ballot. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states have provisions for runoff elections. Among them, Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas require a primary candidate to get a majority of the votes — 50 percent plus one — to advance to the general election. Otherwise, a runoff is held between the top two vote-getters. Some argue that the benefit of runoff elections is that they require a candidate to get the majority of the vote. But, Oklahoma, as most states, doesn't require candidates to win general elections with a majority. Gov. Brad Henry and former Gov. Frank Keating each won their first terms with less than 50 percent of the total vote.

Chris Casteel, Washington bureau

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