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Runoff Election

What Is a Runoff Election?

2 min read
Runoff Election
Good Party Politics Team · Nov 20, 2023

Runoff elections are a crucial component of the American democratic system. By giving voters another opportunity to select their favorite candidate, runoff elections are often essential to guaranteeing majority representation. 

In this in-depth guide, we will examine what a runoff election in democracy is, how a runoff election operates, and how important it is to the democratic process. We will also discuss the benefits and drawbacks of runoff elections and look at real-world scenarios to highlight their significance in various political settings.

Runoff Elections Explained

What Is a Runoff Election?

A runoff election is a particular kind of election that takes place when no candidate in a primary or original election receives an absolute majority of votes, usually more than 50%. A runoff election is sometimes also referred to as a second-round or second-ballot election. 

To provide voters with a clear option between the two candidates who garnered the most votes in the first election, an electoral runoff is scheduled. The purpose of the second-ballot election is to guarantee that the victorious candidate receives a majority of votes, strengthening the credibility of their victory.

How Does a Runoff Election Work?

Now that we have covered the basic runoff election definition, let’s understand how the runoff election process works. In the event that no candidate wins the necessary majority of votes following the first election, the top two contestants move on to the second round of voting. Usually, this second round of voting happens a few weeks following the first election. Voters will have the chance to select between the two contenders in this second-ballot election, which usually results in a clear winner.


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When Are Runoff Elections Held?

In the United States, a runoff election can be held at any time depending on the jurisdiction and type of election. These elections are more prevalent in local, special, and primary elections in the United States. In general, runoff elections for federal offices like the Senate, the President, or Congress are not common.

State or municipal legislation may dictate the schedule for second-ballot elections. They can take place a few weeks or even months after the initial election, depending on the circumstances. Giving candidates and voters enough time to get ready for the second round is usually the goal.

Types of Elections Where Runoffs are Used

Second-ballot elections are used in many types of elections, but they are most commonly used in local and primary elections. Let's explore these in greater depth:

Primary Elections

Political parties choose which of their candidates to field in the general election during primary elections. The party's nominee is often chosen through a political runoff vote in the event that no contender wins a majority of the vote in the primary.

Local Elections

Local elections, such as those for school boards, city councils, and mayors, often use second-ballot elections. In a runoff election in local government, the objective is to guarantee that the winner enjoys widespread support. This is crucial for anyone willing to get involved in local politics.

Special Elections

If no candidate wins a majority of the vote in the first election, second-ballot elections may also be necessary for special elections to fill vacancies in elected posts.

Procedures of Second-Ballot Elections

When no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first election, second-ballot elections have unique procedures intended to produce a just and definitive result. A closer look at these procedures is provided below:

  1. Selection of Candidates: Only the top two candidates from the first round advance to the second round in a second-ballot election.

  2. Timing: Depending on the area and the particular regulations of runoff elections there, the election dates might vary.

  3. Voter Eligibility: Generally, the runoff follows the same eligibility requirements as the primary election. Those who were able to vote in the first election are also entitled to vote in the runoff.

  4. Design of Ballot: Since there are only two candidates in a second-ballot election, the ballot design is often less complicated than in the primary.

  5. Administration of Elections: As with the primary elections, second-ballot elections must be planned and supervised by election officials.

  6. Vote Counting: A runoff election's vote-counting procedure is similar to that of the primary election.

  7. Results and Certification: Following a runoff election, the election results are confirmed and the winner is formally announced.

What Causes Second-Ballot Elections?

These elections may result from a number of circumstances, such as:

  1. Many Candidates: It is harder for one candidate to get a majority of the votes when there are many contenders vying for the same position.

  2. Ranked Choice Voting: Ranked choice voting, which enables voters to rank candidates according to preference, is used in several jurisdictions. In this electoral system, the lowest-ranked contender is eliminated after the first round, and their votes are reallocated to the remaining candidates if no candidate receives the necessary majority of the vote in the first round of voting. This election process is repeated until one candidate obtains a majority or there are just two contenders left.

  3. Election Runoff Rules: In certain situations, runoff elections may be required by state and municipal election regulations in order to guarantee that a clear majority winner is declared.

The Significance of Runoff Elections in the Democratic Process

Legitimacy and Majority Rule

The ability of runoff elections to preserve the idea of majority rule is their primary benefit. The ability of elected authorities to carry out the will of the majority is the foundation of their legitimacy in a democracy. This is accomplished by second-ballot elections, which guarantee that the victorious candidate has a majority mandate by guaranteeing that they collect more votes than their rival in the second round.

The majority rule encourages elected leaders to feel legitimate and accountable. The notion that an elected figure is truly representing the interests of the majority is reinforced when they can declare that they have had the support of more than 50% of voters. Consequently, this enhances the stability and credibility of the government.

Lowering Strategic Voting

In many electoral systems, people worry about strategic voting, which is the practice of casting ballots for a more "viable" candidate rather than their truly preferred candidate. The need for strategic voting is significantly reduced by second-ballot elections, particularly during the first election.

Voters are free to voice their genuine preferences in the first round because they are aware that they will have another chance to impact the results in the second round if their favorite candidate does not advance to the runoff. Just like in approval voting, this system makes it easier for voters to cast sincere ballots and lessens the pressure on them to make calculated decisions, which encourages a more true representation of their political preferences.

Candidate Moderation

The selection of more moderate or centrist candidates frequently results from second-ballot elections. A wider spectrum of candidates from different political parties or ideas may run in the first round. However, extreme or fringe candidates have a lower chance of moving on to the second round of the second-ballot election since they must win over a larger percentage of votes in order to obtain a majority.

This moderation is important because it can support political stability and encourage cooperation and compromise among elected authorities. It is simpler to establish common ground and pass laws that represent the interests of the general public when centrist politicians dominate the political scene.

Creating Consensus

Second-ballot elections increase the likelihood of reaching a political consensus. The endorsement of one of the two contenders by a candidate who did not advance to the runoff can bring the electorate together. This endorsement frequently indicates that the remaining contenders are thought to have certain things in common or make better decisions.

This kind of consensus-building can help mend any divisions that may have occurred during the campaign and promote unity after the election. Once in office, it can also foster compromise and cooperation among elected officials who understand that they must cooperate to advance the interests of the majority.

Preventing Minority Victories

The fact that second-ballot elections keep minority winners from taking office is a crucial feature. Without a runoff, it is possible for a candidate to win with just a plurality of the vote, which would mean they have more votes than the opposition but not the majority. This situation may give rise to questions regarding representation and validity.

The elected official needs to obtain a majority in the second round of second-ballot elections. By doing this, the chance of a candidate prevailing with support from a minority group is eliminated, giving the victorious candidate more support and, thus, a stronger mandate to rule.

Promoting Inclusivity

Candidates frequently cater to their respective party bases and target particular voter categories in the first round of an election, but when a runoff is possible, the candidates have a greater incentive to widen their appeal. In an attempt to win a majority in the second round, they might engage with various voter groups, such as those who first backed other candidates.

This inclusivity is important because it pushes candidates to interact with a wider range of constituents and address a more varied range of issues. By guaranteeing that the winner takes into account the interests of a larger range of people, runoff elections promote a more responsive and representative democracy.

Pros and Cons of Runoff Elections

Voting in a runoff election offers both benefits and drawbacks, just like any other voting system. Let’s review a few of them:

Pros of Runoff Elections

  • Rule of Majority: Runoff elections boost the credibility of the elected official by guaranteeing that the winner has the backing of the majority of voters.

  • Fairness: A second chance to weigh the merits of the top two candidates is given to voters in second-ballot elections.

  • Reduction of Spoiler Effect: Runoff elections lessen the possibility that third-party and independent candidates may split the vote and possibly skew the outcome of the election.

Cons of Runoff Elections

  • Expense and Complexity: Second-ballot elections have the potential to be costly and demand more time and resources from candidates and election authorities alike.

  • Voter Fatigue: Because second-ballot elections require voters to visit the polls twice in a short period of time, they may cause voter fatigue.

  • Lower Turnout: Compared to primary elections, second-ballot elections sometimes have lower voter turnout, which could lead to an outcome that is less representative of the will of the majority.

Real-World Examples of Runoff Elections

Here are some real-world examples to help you better grasp the relevance of second-ballot elections in different political contexts:

Elections for the Georgia Senate (2021)

No candidate in either race won more than 50% of the vote in the general election of the 2020 Georgia U.S. Senate elections. This led to second-ballot elections, which finally decided the Senate's power structure. Democratic gains in these second-ballot elections gave them a narrow majority in the Senate.

Presidential Elections in France

France holds its presidential elections in two rounds. The top two candidates square off in a runoff if no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round. This election runoff system has had a significant impact on the shaping of the political climate of their nation.

Brazil Presidential Election (2022)

In Brazil, a second-ballot election is conducted in the event that no candidate wins a clear majority in the first round of voting. In the 2022 general election, Bolsonaro, a right-wing politician, and Lula, a leftist, came out on top in the first round and had to compete in a second round of voting to decide who would win by an absolute majority. The majority's support for the elected president was guaranteed by this method.

2019 Istanbul Municipal Election

Another illustration of the runoff election significance was the 2019 mayoral contest in Istanbul, Turkey. A rerun was necessary after the first election's outcome was deemed invalid owing to irregularities. After winning the rerun, Ekrem İmamoğlu was elected as Istanbul's mayor.

These instances show how a second-round election can guarantee majority representation in a variety of political settings, thereby underscoring the importance of runoff elections.


Runoff elections are an essential component of the American democratic process because they guarantee that elected officials have the backing of the majority and strengthen the validity of election results. Even if they have both benefits and drawbacks, runoffs are nonetheless an essential instrument for advancing fair representation, accountability, and justice in a range of elections, from municipal to primary. The political environment and the direction of governance in the United States as well as internationally are still greatly influenced by second-ballot elections. Experience the power of runoff elections and participate in shaping democracy. Join Good Party and get involved in volunteering, supporting fair, representative elections that uphold the will of the majority. Your vote matters – make it count!

Photo by Jennifer Burk on Unsplash


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Politics 101
Runoff Election
By Good Party Politics Team
The politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.