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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Bluegrass and Runoffs Don't Jibe

In the early 1900s, states began requiring political parties to use primary elections to nominate their candidates. In most of the South at that time, to be sure, winning the Democratic nomination was almost always equivalent to being elected. Nearly all the former Confederate states-- plus Oklahoma-- therefore enacted runoff (or second) primaries, in order to ensure that no candidate got elected with a small percentage of the vote.

Mississippi was first to adopt the runoff primary. The other states that today have runoff laws are Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina(1), Louisiana(2), Oklahoma, and, for the time being, Kentucky.

Kentucky has never held a runoff primary, and it's necessary to go back to 1979 to understand why. That year John Y. Brown Jr., a millionaire, won the Democratic primary for governor with 27 percent of the vote. Fast forward to 1987, when another millionaire, Wallace Wilkinson, won the Democratic gubernatorial primary with 35 percent (wrecking former Gov. Brown's comeback bid in the process).

Kentucky law had never stipulated runoffs, but largely in reaction to the 1979 and 1987 primaries, the Kentucky legislature enacted runoff primaries for the office of governor only, effective with the 1995 elections. There is a 40 percent threshold to avoid a runoff, which is why none has ever been required.

In 2007, when it appeared that gubernatorial runoff(s) might be looming, the local election officials complained loudly about the possible additional expense. The legislature then appropriated extra money to cover the potential runoff(s), which, again, turned out to be unnecessary.

The candidates for governor in both the Democratic and Republican 2007 primaries also agreed that if no one got the threshold 40 percent, the second-place finisher would drop out in order to eschew a runoff.

Now, as expected, the Kentucky legislature is moving to repeal the gubernatorial runoff provision, as the House has passed HB 18. On February 19, however, the Senate amended the bill to also change the state's primary election schedule, so it is now in a conference committee. But it's clear that the days of a runoff requirement in the Bluegrass State are numbered.

Note: Mississippi started using the primary election statewide in 1903. This state's Republicans first held a primary in 1972, when Gil Carmichael defeated James Meredith for the U. S. Senate nomination. Notably, the only time there has ever been a Republican gubernatorial runoff here was in 1991, when Kirk Fordice beat Pete Johnson.


(1) North Carolina has a 40 percent threshold to avoid a runoff primary.

(2) Louisiana just has runoff primaries in its congressional elections. Other than presidential primaries, those are the only party primaries that the Bayou State has.


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