The Second Primary: Is it Worth the Effort?

In North Carolina, if there are more than two candidates in a primary, the winning candidate must carry at least 40% of the vote in a primary election to win outright. Otherwise, the second-place finisher has the right to request a second runoff primary in which the top two vote-getters from the first primary face off against one another. Second primaries may occur for well-known offices, like Senate or Governor, as well as much lesser-known offices like the various Council of State positions, or may occur for a local race which does not have a statewide component.

What’s Wrong with This System?

The main argument against this type of voting system is that turnout for these second primaries is typically very low. Usually a single-digit percentage of eligible voters participate, causing candidates to be selected by a small minority of the population who may or may not be representative of the state as a whole. Despite being low-turnout, elections have a considerable cost to the state and to the individual county governments which operate polling places, as they still must open and staff normal polling sites. Many counties have several dozen polling sites, which amounts to hundreds of temporary workers per county, printing costs for ballots, and other fixed costs.

In the most recent second primary, held July 17, 2012, turnout was a mere 3.61%. You can click here to see a map of relative turnout by county. Further, many locations had to open polling sites even when very few races required a second primary. Click here to see a map of the number of races by location.

How Low is the Turnout?

The chart below illustrates the relative turnout percentage for both the current and the past two even-year election cycles. (You can see exact values by placing your mouse over the individual bars.) As you can see, very few voters show up to make these decisions. Even when a race has a relatively high profile contest, like the 2010 Democratic Senate runoff between Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham, only a small percentage of voters take the time to exercise their rights.


What are the Alternatives?

The simplest solution would be to simply eliminate the second primary, and let the candidate with the largest percentage of the vote advance to the general election. However, this has its own issues, especially when the top finisher wins with only a small percentage of the vote. Voters may wish for the opportunity to select their second-favorite candidate. Some systems can handle second-favorite candidate selection automatically, such as instant-runoff voting. There are other systems as well, for elections which may have multiple winners, such as alternative vote plus. While some argue that these systems make things more confusing for voters, they do help eliminate the need for multiple rounds of elections. The YouTube video below (courtesy C.G.P. Gray) explains how alternative voting works in plain English, although this particular example is oriented towards general elections.

Voter Turnout in the July 17, 2012 Second Primary by County

As you can see from the map below, over half of North Carolina’s one hundred counties had voter turnout levels of under three percent. No county with a major population center had a turnout of over 6%, and only two counties exceeded 9% turnout. Turnout was generally higher in areas with more races on the ballot, or more closely contested races, but all counties had turnout levels below that of the first primary in May.


State Contests on the Ballot

Unlike the first primary, in which all of North Carolina saw a number of races on the ballot, the number of races taking place on the second primary ballot was relatively limited. Below is a map of the number of contests taking place by area. To create this map, outlines of each district with a race taking place on the second primary ballot were overlayed. Note that this map combines both Democratic and Republican races: there were four statewide Republican races and one statewide Democratic race which required a runoff, as well as a number of US House, NC House, and NC Senate races amongst both parties. Local elections (districts covering just one county or a portion of one county) are not included as they are not managed by the State Board of Elections. As a way of comparison, there were thirteen statewide elections on the first primary ballot, along with a referendum, and contested races in the vast majority of US House districts, many General Assembly districts, and several local races as well.