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What Is a Runoff Election?

A runoff election is a second election. It is held if the top vote-getting candidate in a first election – a primary or a general election – did not achieve the minimum percentage of votes required in that state. 

A runoff election is most common in primary elections, where voters are choosing the candidates to run on the ballot for a particular political party. But runoff elections can also occur during general elections.

This article will discuss why a runoff election might happen, what voters will see on the ballot in a runoff election, and how runoff elections vary from state to state.

Why would a runoff election be needed?

The purpose of a runoff election is to ensure a winning candidate meets the required threshold of votes, usually 50% or more. However, that varies by state and by office.

For example, if there were five candidates for a particular office, possibly no one would achieve 30% of the vote. A runoff election would then take place between the top two vote-getting candidates.

What does a runoff election ballot look like?

A runoff election ballot is an abbreviated ballot that contains only the names of the two candidates under consideration.

When does a runoff election take place?

Each state that has runoff voting determines the date for its own elections, anywhere from two to nine weeks following the first primary election.

What is instant runoff voting?

Instant runoff voting is a voting method that allows voters to rank their candidates by order of preference. Instant runoff voting can be used for:

  • Single-candidate offices
  • Elections when more than one candidate is being selected (for example, multiple school board members).

Learn more about ranked choice, or instant runoff voting at FairVote.

How do runoff elections differ by state?

The rules for runoff elections vary from state to state. Some states hold primary runoff elections if the minimum threshold of votes is not met.

Two states have general election runoff voting for some positions. Five states use ranked-choice or instant runoff voting for primaries:

  • Alabama: A primary candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote, or a primary runoff election will be held nine weeks after the first primary. Only voters who voted in the primary the first time can vote in the runoff election. Military and overseas voters requesting an absentee ballot to vote in the state primary will receive a ranked choice ballot. This enables instant runoff voting should a runoff election be needed and prevents the voter from having to request and mail in a second ballot.
  • Arkansas: A primary candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote, or a primary runoff election will be held three weeks after the first primary. Military and overseas voters requesting an absentee ballot to vote in the state primary will receive a ranked choice ballot. This enables instant runoff voting should a runoff election be needed.
  • California: Instant runoff voting is used for local elections in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro.
  • Colorado: Instant runoff voting is used for local elections in Telluride, Basalt, and Carbondale.
  • Florida: Party primaries use instant runoff voting
  • Georgia: A primary candidate must receive 50% of the vote, or a runoff primary election will be held nine weeks after the first primary. General election candidates for statewide offices must also meet the 50% threshold or a runoff election will be held.
  • Indiana: Party primaries use instant runoff voting
  • Louisiana: Louisiana has an "open" primary system where all candidates for office run in one primary. If the top candidate receives more than 50%of the vote, they win the primary as well as the election. If no candidate achieves 50%, then the top two candidates move on to the general election ballot (the general election, then, is a runoff election). This system is used for local, state, and congressional races.
  • Maine: Instant runoff voting (also called ranked choice voting) will be used for state primary, congressional, and presidential elections starting with the 2020 elections.
  • Maryland: Party primaries use instant runoff voting, as well as local elections in Takoma Park.
  • Massachusetts: Instant runoff voting is used in local elections in Cambridge
  • Michigan: Eastpointe, Michigan uses ranked choice voting for city elections.
  • Minnesota: Party primaries use instant runoff voting, as well as local elections in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and St. Louis Park.
  • Mississippi: A primary candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote or a runoff primary election will be held three weeks after the primary.
  • New Mexico: Instant runoff voting is used in local elections in Santa Fe and Las Cruces
  • North Carolina: A primary candidate must receive at least 40% of the vote or a primary runoff election is held seven weeks after the primary. In a non-partisan municipal election, if a candidate does not receive a 50%-plus-one majority of the vote, the candidate who came in second may ask for a runoff election.
  • Oklahoma: A primary candidate must receive a 50%-plus-one majority of the vote or a primary runoff election is held in August.
  • South Carolina: A primary candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote or a primary runoff election will be held, usually two weeks after the primary. Military and overseas voters requesting an absentee ballot to vote in the state primary will receive a ranked choice ballot to enable instant runoff voting should a runoff election be needed. This prevents the voter from having to request and mail in a second ballot.
  • South Dakota: A primary candidate for U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, and governor must receive at least 35% of the vote to be placed on the ballot. If no candidate achieves that, the top two candidates take part in a "secondary" or runoff election three weeks after the primary.
  • Texas: A primary candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote or a primary runoff election takes place six weeks after the primary.
  • Utah: Instant runoff voting is used in local elections in Vineland and Payson
  • Vermont: In Vermont, a primary runoff election is held only if there is a tie.
  • Wisconsin: Party primaries use instant runoff voting

Voting laws do change over time, so this is just a snapshot of state runoff voting statutes (laws).

To learn more about runoff voting in your state, or specific state statutes, you can visit:

Can you vote by absentee ballot in a runoff election?

You can request an absentee ballot to vote in a runoff election. This can be challenging, however, when the timeframe between a primary and a runoff election is short, sometimes only two or three weeks. It can be difficult to meet the voting deadline when one must request a mailed ballot, receive the ballot, and send it back.

As listed above, two states provide instant runoff ballots to enable absentee ballot voters to vote only once. This solves the challenge of getting an absentee ballot returned on time.

How can you challenge unfair or illegal election practices?

If you believe your right to vote was infringed on, take action. If your candidacy for office was undermined by wrongful actions during an election campaign, you have every right to get a legal opinion from an election law lawyer. These attorneys are knowledgeable about the election laws of your state. Democracy works when we safeguard it.

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